Following the results of the election, there appears to be a real window in Washington, D.C. to do something meaningful on immigration.
The just reelected president has made immigration reform a first tier priority. And many Republicans believe that dealing with this issue is essential to restoring to their party some attractiveness with the two fastest growing groups of immigrants: Asians and Hispanics. Both groups clobbered the GOP in the election, with approximately 66 percent of Hispanics breaking for the president and Asians going into the president’s column at a whopping 73 percent.
The inability of Republican candidates to capture votes from these important demographic blocs is jarring. In 1996, the GOP Dole-Kemp ticket won 48 percent of the Asian vote. In his successful 2004 reelection campaign, President Bush won over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Much has changed.
But more important than any political gains to be had are the economic benefits. As American Enterprise Institute fellow Ben Wattenberg wrote a few months ago, immigration is a comparative advantage for the United States. We need to take full advantage of the fact that the best and the brightest, the hardest working people from around the world desire to work and live in the United States. This isn’t a situation that we should run from. This is something we should fully embrace.
While there may be the urge to try to fix the entire immigration system in one fell swoop, an all-at-once approach imploded a few years ago. A step-by-step approach focused on making incremental gains may make more sense.
Yes, we need to bolster security and continue to work towards operational control of the border, but we also need to work on other areas ripe for reform now.
The three areas that should be addressed first: 1) some sort of codification of the president’s mini-Dream Act; 2) a path to increasing the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and higher-skill visas; and 3) improvements to our existing temporary worker programs.
Already the president has gone forward via executive order with a Dream Act-type plan that provides a renewable work permit for those who entered the country illegally at a young age and who meet certain conditions, such as military service or enrollment in college.
Shoring this up via legislation is not necessarily dead on arrival in Congress. You will recall that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney criticized the president’s process behind this new program, but he did not attack the substance. And Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida had been working on a similar proposal to the president’s actions before the executive order.
On visa reform, the U.S. House as early as this week is poised to act on legislation that would increase the number of STEM visas and make it easier for those with green cards to bring over family members. The trade-off would be an elimination of the diversity visa program.
The public support for reform is there. A poll conducted for the Arizona Business Coalition over the summer found support for the president’s action on undocumented immigrants brought here as children, with 56 percent of respondents favoring the president’s policy while 41 percent were opposed. This proposal was supported by 76 percent of Hispanics with only 21 percent in opposition.
Regarding Arizonans’ support for a proposal similar to the STEM legislation to be considered by the House later this week, the results are clear. The same poll asked the following question:
“The proposal would create a new category of green cards for highly-skilled foreign students who have earned a masters or doctorate degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics from an American university and have received a job offer to work in the U.S. This would allow these foreign-born students to stay, work, and pay taxes here in the United States. “
The results? Eighty percent support and only 19 percent in opposition.
In addition to this STEM proposal we should pass something along the lines of what Sen.-elect Jeff Flake has proposed with his STAPLE Act, which would exempt international STEM graduates educated in the U.S. from visa quotas.
There is also support for addressing obvious U.S. temporary worker needs. Arizona voters were asked:
“In general, would you support or oppose a guest worker program that allows workers from Mexico to cross the border legally and register with American authorities to perform seasonal work on a temporary basis in Arizona?”
The results were 83 percent of respondents in support and only 16 percent registering in opposition.
The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry is prepared to help advise policymakers on these items, and we’ve established new policy committees – Federal Affairs and Hispanic Business and Emerging Markets – to help provide the analysis they require.
Forgive the sports analogy, but if immigration were a baseball game, we’re down by four runs. It would be nice to hit a grand slam and solve all of our immigration challenges, but we can get the same results by stringing together singles and doubles.
There’s a real opportunity to make substantive reforms to our country’s immigration system. Let’s not let this opportunity pass us by.
Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry