The Babysitter and the Boss: A Story of Immigration and the Need for Reform
My brother’s babysitter grew up in Central America and immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. She entered legally and, after many years, received her citizenship. Once my mom retired from her job, Jonah’s babysitter stopped watching him, but she did clean our house every week. I remember her being a hard worker, and I remember that she often brought new faces, few of whom could speak English, when she came to clean. Looking back, I wonder….was this an example of “chain migration”?
“Chain migration” refers to the fact that newly minted American citizens can sponsor family members who can then sponsor other family members. A less pejorative way of describing the policy is to use the phrase “family reunification.” Each year, about two-thirds of new visas go to immigrants who are sponsored by their family.
On the one hand, family unification is a good thing. I’m glad that my future mother-in-law was allowed to sponsor her husband, my future father-in-law, to move to America, and I’m glad that my future father-in-law was allowed to then sponsor his daughter. But while I support a system of family unification, I also believe we should select the majority of immigrants based on their skills and talents rather than on their familial networks. In short, we need more immigrants like my brother’s boss.
After a grueling Ph.D. program, Jonah found a dream job in Boston. He only got the job because his boss stayed in America after graduating from MIT with a doctorate in Biosystems engineering. His boss, born in Iran, is exactly the type of immigrant innovator we should embrace with open arms and a green card. Or I think of my fiancee’s close friend, Temi, who grew up in Nigeria and who recently graduated from NYU with a Ph.D. in public health. We need an immigration system that prioritizes the best and brightest minds to build careers and build families in the United States.
America has long benefited from high-skilled immigration. Studies have shown that immigrants tend to be more entrepreneurial and more likely to create new businesses. According to an analysis from the National Foundation for American Policy, more than half of the billion-dollar startups in the United States had at least one immigrant founder. Also, according to the NFAP, immigrants are responsible for 38 percent of U.S. Nobel Prizes in science. A team of economists recently estimated that a third of all U.S. innovation since 1976 can be attributed to high-skilled immigrants. A skill based immigration system will not only strengthen our economy, it will also strengthen our national defense.
While America has long been a magnet for industrious immigrants, the United Kingdom and Canada have made changes to compete with us. The U.K. rolled out its Global Talent visa, which provides an uncapped, fast-track program to recruit the world’s top scientists, and Canada has also made key reforms. According to a recent survey, Canada has replaced the U.S. as the most desirable location for migrants moving for work. One recent analysis notes how the number of Indian graduate students attending U.S. science and engineering programs declined by nearly 40 percent, while the number of Indian students attending Canadian colleges and universities increased 182 percent. Some experts argue that this is because it is easier for Indian students to work after graduation and become permanent residents in Canada. When it comes to attracting the top talent from abroad, we need to make some reforms of our own.
First, we need to expand our H-1B visa program, which was designed in 1990 to help bring in skilled professionals. Employers sponsor these visas, which are capped at 65,000 for workers with at least a bachelor's degree and an additional 20,000 for those with at least a master's degree. Given the large discrepancy between supply and demand (there were 484,000 applications for the 85,000 slots in 2022), the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service has resorted to a lottery system to determine who gets in. It’s a broken system— world class experts in their fields have the same chance of winning the lottery as entry-level IT workers!
Some argue that lifting the cap on H-1B visas will make it easier for inexpensive foreign labor to undercut the wages of American employees. But experts at the Heritage Foundation point out that “the law requires employers to pay at least what equivalently skilled U.S. workers would earn,” and a study from the Cato Institute shows that H-1B employers pay at least average market wages and, often, even more. In fact, Heritage experts argue that, because H-1B visa holders earn high wages and pay substantial taxes on those earnings, raising the cap would also raise tens of billions of dollars in new revenue for the government without raising taxes.
Second, we should also remove the “per country cap” for green card applicants. Current law imposes a limit on how many immigrants from any particular country can receive green cards in a given year. The cap is seven percent from each country. This penalizes highly skilled immigrants just because they come from countries with lots of other high-skilled immigrants.
On the one hand, the country cap penalizes immigrants from India, which is a problem because immigrants from India have been one of the most successful immigrant groups. On the other hand, removing the caps could also result in more immigrants from China, especially given the number of Chinese students attending American universities. While it would be great for us to steal the best and the brightest from our number one adversary, given the theft taking place at our universities and at our companies, we need to be very careful when giving green cards to Chinese nationals. Any American concerned with human rights, LGBT rights, free speech, and preventing ethnic cleansing should fear a China that displaces America on the global stage.
Another reform comes from Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). She proposes a “start-up visa” category similar to the ones in Canada and the United Kingdom. It’s an interesting idea, but the devil is in the details. Lofrgren argues that we should only offer visas to those have “an ownership interest” in the company of at least 10 percent, those who play a “central and active” role in managing the company, or those who possess the “knowledge, skills, or experience to substantially assist” the company. In addition, during the 18-month period before the owner applies for the visa, the company must receive at least $250,000 in “qualifying investments” or at least $100,000 in “qualifying government awards or grants.” I acknowledge that this might be an expensive program to administer and that there is the potential for fraud, but the bottom line is that a such a visa would help us remain the leader in technology and innovation.
When it comes to the broader topic of immigration reform, my views have changed from when I first worked on the Hill in 2006. Back then, I remember being in Congressman Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) office as hundreds and hundreds of constituents called in to condemn the comprehensive immigration reform bill being debated at the time.
I took the calls and listened politely. But I remember thinking to myself: “We need to devise a broad compromise that will tackle all the issues (e.g. border security, migrant worker reform, e-verify reform, legalization of the DREAMers, and a solution regarding the millions of illegal immigrants) all at once.” I also supported the “gang of eight” when they were trying to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013.
I still think that we need to deal with all these issues, but I now believe we must do so separately. Simply put, too many Americans do not trust the federal government to enforce immigration laws. This mistrust started with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. While large numbers of illegal immigrants took advantage of the amnesty provision, the employer sanctions were never enforced. Amnesty coupled with meaningless penalties only made the problem worse.
Only after we first crack down on illegal immigration and earn the trust of the American people, can we then figure out a permanent solution for the estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows. It wouldn’t be prudent, possible, or moral to deport that many people. But another amnesty will only encourage more lawbreaking in the future.
To be sure, there are different definitions of amnesty. I used to think that demanding that undocumented immigrants pass a background check, learn English, and pay a fine would be enough of a penalty. I’ve changed my mind about this. Any path to a green card must be much, much harder.
While I’ve change my mind about blanket amnesty, I still believe that we should legalize the DREAMers. These children did nothing wrong. But we must legalize them by passing a law. Obama’s DACA decision was unconstitutional, plain and simple. (Obama even admitted a number of times that he didn’t have the legal authority to do what he did.) So Congress should get to work on a compromise bill that deals with the DREAMers and border security/interior enforcement, especially because news from the southern border keeps getting worse (migrant border crossings in the 2022 fiscal year topped 2.76 million, breaking the previous record).
If responsible people don’t deal with the immigration crisis, then populist anger will boil to the surface and will push irresponsible people into positions of power. I believe that had President Bush and President Obama stepped up to the plate and enforced our immigration laws we would not have ended up with a reality-show star as president.
Wanting to stop illegal immigration isn’t some right wing position. Consider this quote from President Bill Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union: “All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected, but in every place in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public service they use impose burdens on our taxpayers. That's why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens. In the budget I will present to you we will try to do more to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, to better identify illegal aliens in the workplace.”
At the end of the day, one of the things that makes America the most exceptional nation on earth is that we are a land of immigrants. But, even more, we are a nation of laws. We need to enforce those laws, but we also need to pass new laws to expand legal immigration for those highly qualified candidates who have attended American universities and earned degrees in STEM fields.