Menu
Home

Opinion

Obama’s Immigration Dance Partner

In his speech Monday to the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), President Obama mentioned the enormous number of “high-tech startups in America—companies like Google and Intel...founded by immigrants.” Many immigrant entrepreneurs in the high-tech industry began with employer sponsored green cards, H-1B work visas, or in American universities. The President says he wants them to stay.

He also said that needed a “dance partner, and the floor is empty.” Yet there is much his administration can do already.

First, he should look to Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Rep. Flake’s bill, the Stopping Trained in America Ph.D.s from Leaving the Economy (STAPLE) Act (H.R. 399), would remove the quotas on H-1B visas and employer-sponsored green cards for foreign Ph.D. graduates from American universities in the sciences, technology, engineering, or mathematics.

H-1B visas are temporary employer-sponsored visas for highly skilled workers in specialty occupations. They run for three years and can be renewed once, for a second three-year term. Currently, only 20,000 spots are set aside for foreigners graduating from American universities. The STAPLE Act expands the quota by exempting a large number of petitioners from it.

In stark contrast with other immigration reform bills, the STAPLE Act has numerous co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle, and is brief—at only three pages—and easily understandable by laymen. It is a vital reform that will match growing American industries with the skilled workers they require to grow. Last year, 60 percent of computer science Ph.D. graduates from U.S. universities were foreign-born.  Allowing more of them to stay and start businesses will help spur job creation.  

However, highly skilled industries are not the only area where job creation is needed. The NCLR audience seemed upset by the President’s praise for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, not because they oppose it, but because Obama has been so tepid in his support.  The DREAM Act would allow some undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to gain conditional legal status. That would then be extended to permanent legal residency if they complete at least two years of college or join the military within six years. 

The problem was that the DREAM Act directs federal education aid to these students. It failed last December for that very reason. Poll after poll show that American apprehension about immigration mostly concerns taxes to support immigrants, and rightly so.

For a solution, the President should look to California. On the same day as Obama’s speech, Governor Jerry Brown (D) signed into law California’s own version of the DREAM Act.  It allows undocumented students who went to high school in California for three or more years to pay in-state tuition for public universities and to have access to non-state scholarship and financial aid. DREAM Act supporters in Congress should adopt this last provision.

The President talked about cutting “red tape that keeps entrepreneurs from turning new ideas into thriving businesses.” If he is serious about this, he should abandon his administraiton’s endorsement of E-Verify, an electronic employment eligibility verification system, which has proven a massive regulatory burden. 

According to a major 2009 audit by research service Westat, 4.1 percent of the E-Verify system’s initial responses to queries were inaccurate, negatively affecting legal workers too. E-Verify even approved 54 percent of unauthorized workers.  Worse, E-Verify pushes unauthorized immigrants even deeper into the black market, according to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California. 

Immigration advocates have other reasons to be upset. The Obama administration has also begun electronic audits of I-9 records, deployed military units and predator drones to the Mexican border, and set deportation records, topping out at 387,242 last year – 176,144 more deportations than in the third year of Bush’s Presidency.   Immigration and Customs Enforcement is on track to exceed that record this year. 

We are a nation of laws but those laws should be wise.  That is far from the case with America’s immigration laws—they burden the economy, create a black market in labor, and deprive America of talent by forcing highly skilled U.S.-educated immigrants to go back to their home countries after graduation.

President Obama’s stated support for immigration reform suggests that he realizes this, but he has not done nearly enough to address the problem. There is much he could do, both with and without a “dance partner”—work for passage of the STAPLE Act and a revised DREAM Act and abandon E-Verify and invasive I-9 audits. It’s a shame he didn’t mention them in his speech.     

Alex Nowrasteh is a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute

Alex Nowrasteh is the immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.