President Obama’s immigration speech last week suffered from political schizophrenia. Early on he bragged of his administration’s efforts to stop undocumented immigration, but later he touted the economic benefits of immigration. Then he spoke out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, but endorsed a bill that is anything but comprehensive.
That law is the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. If passed, it will allow some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to gain conditional legal status. That status would then be extended to permanent legal residency if the recipients complete at least two years of college or join the military within six years.
The DREAM Act would grant access to Pell Grants and other federal education aid to these undocumented immigrants. It failed last December for this very reason and likely will fail again. Poll after poll show that American apprehension about immigration mostly concerns paying taxes to support immigrants, and rightly so.
To his credit, the President explained how immigration enriches the United States. He mentioned the roles of immigrant entrepreneurs like Andrew Carnegie and “the entire industries that were forged by” him and others. Today, with the nation’s economy struggling and unemployment stubbornly high, we need more immigrant entrepreneurs. There is much that could be done toward this goal.
Many modern immigrant entrepreneurs in the high-tech industry got their start working with H-1B visas, employer-sponsored green cards, or learned their skills in American universities, before founding their own companies. By 2008, one-third of all Silicon Valley companies were founded or co-founded by Indian or Chinese nationals, who had worked in the U.S. with H-1B visas or green cards. President Obama says he wants more of these entrepreneurs to stay.
The "Stopping Trained in America Ph.D.s from Leaving the Economy" (S.T.A.P.L.E.) Act (H.R. 399), sponsored by Rep. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.), would help us accomplish that. It would remove the numerical cap on H-1B visas and employer sponsored green cards for foreign Ph.D. students who graduate from American universities in the sciences, technology, engineering, or mathematics.
H-1B visas are employer-sponsored visas for highly skilled workers in specialty occupations. They runs for three years and can be renewed once. Currently, there are only 20,000 H1-B spots for foreigners graduating from American universities. The STAPLE Act essentially raises the cap by exempting a large number of petitioners from it. While an outright repeal of the cap would be far preferable, this is a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, President Obama ignored the STAPLE Act in his speech. Instead, he spent much time mocking the concerns of immigration restrictionists and talking up the virtues of the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act would be a net economic gain to the U.S. and should be passed, but, as noted earlier, it is a political non-starter. Therefore, focus on it likely will yield much wasted effort. The STAPLE Act offers a way forward.
Instead of rehashing old bills like the DREAM Act that have a very low chance of passing, the President should focus on new bills that expand legal immigration and have Republican support, like the STAPLE Act. Increasing future legal immigration opportunities starting with the highly skilled can jump-start the debate and lead to meaningful reform.
The STAPLE Act has numerous co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle. Breaking with current tradition, the law is short and easily understandable by laymen. It would be an important step toward fixing our immigration system and allowing hard-working and skilled foreigners to strive for the American dream and enrich the rest of us in the process.
The president also said that the U.S. is a nation of laws and that those immigrants who break our laws and ignore our principles “cut in front of the line.” He is right that we are a nation of laws, but respect for the rule of law doesn’t mean slavish devotion to bad laws. Instead, bad laws should be changed.
The reality is that line the president invoked is decades long and not available to most potential immigrants. That is why people take the risk to immigrate without government permission. The immigration laws create an enormous black market, ship highly skilled immigrants home after educating them, and generally deprive American businesses of workers and customers. The STAPLE Act is a good first step toward alleviating that situation. The president should pay it some serious attention.
Alex Nowrasteh is a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.