The recent re-emergence of immigration on the national agenda, not to mention our slow recovery from an economic slump, has illuminated an underappreciated but serious flaw in U.S. immigration policy: It is fundamentally misaligned with the needs of America’s economy.
Our current policy does little to prevent an influx of undocumented workers across our southern border, or to raise the education levels of those who are already here. It admits legal immigrants mostly on the basis of unifying extended families, rather than the skills they bring. The U.S. in recent years has admitted roughly one million legal entrants per year. Of these, about two-thirds are admitted based on family ties, while 16 percent come in for employment-related reasons. Programs targeted at skilled migrants let in only about 180,000 people each year. Our immigration policy, in short, lowers the overall skill level in the U.S.
It is time we looked at immigration reform through the prism of human capital development. America’s ability to compete globally increasingly depends on skilled workers and ceaseless innovation. Two policies in particular will help us re-orient our immigration posture.
First, we need to make it easier for foreign students who receive advanced degrees from U.S. institutions in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to stay in the U.S. and join the workforce. Our current immigration system makes it unnecessarily difficult for STEM advanced-degree graduates who are here legally to gain employment. Those students have to compete with foreign-educated and more experienced workers for the 65,000 H1-B visas and 80,000 priority worker and advanced-degree green cards issued every year. We need to change immigration law so those students have a chance to earn a green card with their diploma.
But they are not the only students whose potential we are squandering with an outmoded immigration system. Every year up to 65,000 children of undocumented immigrants graduate high school. While it’s not illegal for them to attend college, universities and colleges have given new scrutiny to immigration status in the wake of 9/11, which has had a chilling effect on undocumented immigrants’ enrollment. It’s in our economic interest to encourage these kids to get a college education. Enacting a policy that would give them a path to citizenship through college education and national service can only strengthen the country.
Rewarding Achievement in Science and Math
First, we should enact policies that make it easier for motivated, capable young immigrants to establish U.S. citizenship. Attaching a green card — granting lawful permanent residence — to every foreign student’s post-graduate STEM degree diploma is one such policy.
Currently foreign students are allowed 12 months of practical training after completing their studies. Under a Department of Homeland Security interim ruling issued in 2008, foreign students with STEM degrees can extend that out to just over two years (29 months). However, students cannot have more than 90 days of unemployment during this time. Once their visa expires, they have to leave the U.S., taking their education and skills with them.
But the average unemployment stint is 130 days, and in this recession, over 200 days — more than twice the official limit. The rule means that students in technically intensive degrees are being turned away after valuable education capital has been invested in them. By attaching a green card to a STEM advanced degree, hardworking and high-achieving foreign students won’t have to leave the U.S. to apply their skills and find good work. From the U.S.’s perspective, it would get to keep bright and industrious workers who can add the most value to our economy.
The government should also exempt green-card recipients who hold advanced STEM degrees from green card caps currently in place. Advanced-degree holders currently face a five-year wait to get a green card. By exempting them from that cap, we can keep valuable human capital here.
Not everyone is on board with this idea. Critics have argued against policies that would encourage foreign students to enter STEM graduate programs in the U.S. They contend that providing further incentives for foreign students will accelerate the crowding out of U.S. students — particularly minorities — and workers in the STEM fields.
But such skeptics ignore the considerable benefits of a vigorous STEM/green card policy. The open flow of knowledge and talented researchers has long helped keep the U.S. at the forefront of science and technology. According to a National Academies report:
The participation of international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars is an important part of the research enterprise of the United States. In some fields they make up more than half the population of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. If their presence were substantially diminished, important research and teaching activities in academe, industry, and federal laboratories would be curtailed, particularly if universities did not give more attention to recruiting and retaining domestic students.
Unleashing the innovative and entrepreneurial energies of our best students — be they American or foreign-born — will be key to America’s resurgence. Stapling a green card to the diplomas of foreign STEM advanced-degree holders is one concrete policy step we can take to ensure that outcome.
A Pathway for Children of Immigrants
The same opportunity to become integrated and contribute to American society should be given to those who came to the U.S. as children with their undocumented parents. This may strike some as controversial, but it’s common sense. When an adult comes into the U.S. illegally, he or she is exercising a choice and is responsible for its consequences. That’s not true of the child who follows his or her parent across the border. A child should not have to suffer severe legal and economic limitations for the simple act of following a parent’s decision.
Yet that’s exactly what happens under the current system. Right now, the children of undocumented immigrants are stuck: As they grow up and go to school, they become more and more American. Yet this country gives them no pathway to legal residency or citizenship. This is bad not just for them, but also for our nation. We are consigning thousands of people to uncertain limbo status, with little hope for full membership in our society. But we are also depriving ourselves of the opportunity to benefit from their energy, ideas, talents and engagement in our national life.
We can tackle this problem by offering an expedited pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who go to college or engage in meaningful national service. This idea has been floated as part of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The measure would grant conditional permanent-resident status to undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before their 16th birthday, lived here for at least five years, are of good moral character and either graduated from high school or attained admission to college.
Opponents of this initiative complain that giving permanent-resident status to children of undocumented immigrants will be just a backdoor way for their parents to document themselves and live legally in the U.S. But those objections don’t stand up to scrutiny. Permanent residents can only petition for spouses and unmarried children, not parents or siblings. Citizens can petition for siblings or parents, but if that relative has been living in the U.S. illegally for more than a year, they may not re-enter the U.S. for 10 years.
It’s also worth noting that comprehensive immigration reform will likely result in some undocumented families having to leave the U.S. For those who meet the conditions to stay, it’s in our economic interest to encourage their kids to get a college education.
Estimates of the number of young people who would become eligible for legal residency under the Dream Act vary widely. The Migration Policy Institute has estimated (PDF) that 360,000 unauthorized immigrants would become immediately eligible, with perhaps another 715,000 who might become so if they make it through high school and meet the other requirements.
Supporters of this idea should be open to some changes in order to not only win passage but also strengthen the benefits from the proposal. For example, if the only way to get the initiative through Congress is to extend the academic requirement for full permanent-resident status from two years of college to four, that’s better than seeing the whole thing go down to defeat, as what happened with the Dream Act.
A broader definition of national service can also win additional votes. Let’s expand the service requirement beyond military experience. An undocumented youth might satisfy the service provision by teaching in low-income schools, tutoring in an adult-literacy program, helping to maintain our national parks, serving in the Peace Corps, or enlisting in a service program established by one of the states.
A Pragmatic Course
America’s immigration policy is badly broken and requires fixes that go far beyond what we have proposed here. We need sweeping reform that dramatically reduces illegal immigration by enforcing laws in the workplace; that ties legalization to workplace verification of identity and legal status; that enlarges the pipeline for legal immigrants, particularly those with high skills; and that engages Mexico in cooperative efforts to curb the flow of guns and people across the border and confront the scourge of narco-terrorism.
A progressive blueprint for reform must also bring our anachronistic immigration laws into closer alignment with America’s economic needs. America can only hold onto its high living standards by competing on the basis of high-value goods and services. Because rapid innovation is key to U.S. comparative advantage, we need immigration policies that attract more educated and skill workers to our shores.
Immigration reform must tilt our laws toward skills. We could achieve this by increasing the number of permanent visas to skilled workers; by replacing per-country limits — which effectively cap skilled entrants from large countries like China and India — with an overall limit; and by limiting family-sponsored preferences to nuclear rather than extended family members.
And we must take the two steps proposed here: stapling a green card to diplomas awarded to foreign students who graduate with advanced STEM degrees from U.S. universities, and offering legal status to qualified children of undocumented immigrants who get a college degree. Offering a pathway to citizenship to high-achieving immigrants doesn’t just reward talent and diligence — it will lay the groundwork for America’s resurgence in the 21st century.