There are debates about whether comprehensive immigration reform is dead because of the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in the primaries. The fact is that it never had any hope. Americans are deeply divided on whether people who entered the country unlawfully should be allowed to become citizens and enjoy the same rights as those who were born here or migrated legally. The insistence by the Democrats on mandating a path to citizenship for the undocumented has turned the legislation into a poison pill that the Republicans will not swallow.
True, the Senate’s bill created only a narrow and treacherous path to citizenship. But it allowed opponents of immigration reform to claim that it was an amnesty. A survey of registered Republicans conducted by FWD.us from May 17-23 revealed that Americans overwhelmingly believe that the immigration system is broken and that Congress should take immediate action to fix it, with Republicans being most convinced that immediate action is necessary. As well, the majority of Americans support of some kind of legalization for undocumented immigrants — they don’t believe that they can or should be deported.
But there is a strong countervailing sentiment that undocumented immigrants should not be granted amnesty. The debates over citizenship pushed many Americans who would otherwise support some form of legalization for the undocumented, over the edge.
Comprehensive immigration reform may well be dead; immigration reform need not be. Our political leaders need to package up small pieces of legislation that are acceptable to the majority of Americans and allow both sides of the political spectrum to declare victory.
One way of resolving the issue of the undocumented workers, for example, is to immediately provide them with temporary visas that allow them to work in the United States, pay taxes, and return home to visit their relatives. They need these rights more than they need the right to vote — which is what the Democrats have been insisting on. Note that from the last immigration-reform measure, in 1986—which provided amnesty to the undocumented—only 40 percent who qualified became U.S citizens. In other words, the majority chose not to take the path to citizenship that is creating the toxic debates, and we can meet the major concerns of all sides by setting the subject of citizenship aside in favor of addressing the needs of the people we are trying to help.
Most Americans would also support providing basic human rights—and citizenship—to the 1.8 million children whose undocumented parents brought them to this country to give them a better future. These children grew up as Americans, believing they were entitled to the same rights and freedoms as their friends are. But, because they don’t have the proper paperwork, they are forced to live in the shadows of society, with limits on where they can work and study and on what they can do. There has been broad support on both sides of Congress for the DREAM Act—which would provide for their human rights. Reaching consensus on this shouldn’t be very hard.
On the skilled-immigration front, there are also many points of agreement—such as on a startup visa, which would allow foreign entrepreneurs to set up shop in the United States, to boost innovation, and to create jobs. By the Kauffman Foundation’s estimate, this visa would create as many as 1.6 million jobs and boost the nation’s annual gross domestic product by 1.6 percent within 10 years.
An increase in the number of permanent-resident visas for foreign doctors, scientists, and engineers would also receive broad support. After all, there are severe shortages, in certain parts of the country, of doctors and nurses to provide medical care, and Silicon Valley lacks qualified engineers and software developers.
Broad consensus could also be achieved on providing temporary work visas for unskilled workers in non-farm jobs, such as in hospitality, food processing, construction, cleaning, and maintenance. ImmigrationWorks USA’s president, Tamar Jacoby, says that in every year from 2003-09, more than 350,000 low-skilled foreigners came to the United States illegally to do this work, and that the only way to prevent future illegal immigration is to create a legal way to meet the continuing demand. Programs such as this could be expanded in good economic times and shrunk in bad times.
Unnecessary battles over immigration have stymied the United States for too long. The country is bleeding competitiveness, and people are needlessly suffering, merely because we have lacked the imagination to see that immigration reform is not all or nothing. Let’s start by doing the things that we agree on and give the nation a victory.
Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University, Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance fellow at Stanford University, a Visiting Scholar at the University of California-Berkley School of Information, Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization, Exec in Residence at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, Senior Research Associate at Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program, and Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Emory University’s Halle Institute of Global Learning.