Monday, May 31, 2010

How to Reform U.S. Immigration (II)

The Council on Foreign Relations’ (Council) study of immigration policy is most passionate about one point—we need to make it much easier for skilled immigrants to come to the U.S. America’s most important comparative advantage is our high quality universities and related research institutions, along with scientific and technological spin-off industries. Why are we not exploiting our advantage by making it easier for skilled foreigners to work and create jobs here?

We should open up more opportunities for skilled foreigners to work here, no matter what else happens with immigration reform. And we should begin with foreign students. The Council study states that 600,000 foreigners are currently studying at U.S. universities, half at only 150 colleges, and they make up only 3% of total college enrollment. Many, many foreign students want to continue working in the U.S. after graduation, but our current law is so crazy that half the students who secure green cards allowing them to remain here do so by marrying Americans.

The Council study recommends foreign students with graduate degrees from U.S. universities should qualify for work visas here if they find jobs, and there should be no limit on the number who qualify. They would be able to move from job to job, and to qualify eventually for green cards. Those with undergraduate degrees, along with other skilled workers who qualify for work visas, could similarly change jobs and eventually obtain green cards. The latter group, however, would be limited by a cap on total visas that would vary based on the economy’s health, but overall would be significantly higher than the current work visa quota.

The government would watch companies that hire large numbers of skilled foreign workers, make sure they also seek out American workers, and ensure all workers receive adequate pay. To make the skilled worker visa program even more useful, the Council study recommends government repeal legal provisions disqualifying presumed intending immigrants, streamline the application process, and eliminate national quotas that particularly restrict Chinese and Indian applicants.

The Council study recommends continuing the current annual quota of 480,000 for family member visas, with immediate families of U.S. citizens (spouse, minor children, parents) outside the quota. The study failed to recommend elimination of the preference given adult siblings of U.S. citizens, a preference other countries rarely honor, and one that could overwhelm the U.S. if 13 million illegal immigrants eventually became citizens. We should stop giving preference to adult siblings—they often have little real connection to their new citizen brothers and sisters—and instead allow even more visas for skilled immigrants.

In any case, America should dramatically liberalize existing restrictions that keep skilled foreigners, especially those already here as students, from becoming U.S. citizens who contribute to our economic future. We should move the skilled worker visa reform forward now. It has few real opponents—big upside, small or no downside—and therefore should not be linked to other, more controversial immigration issues.

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