Immigration Reform as Compassionate Self-Interest

A secondary barrier helps establish an enforcement zone for the U.S. Border Patrol Photograph by Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg

Let’s forget the politics—left, right, moderate, and everything in between—and agree that America’s immigration laws are broken and need to be fixed.

As Sheldon Adelson, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates wrote recently in the New York Times, the time is long past for Washington to agree on a new immigration policy “that reflects both our country’s humanity and its self-interest.”

Let’s focus the debate on America’s needs—not solely on enforcement and not solely on designing a “road to citizenship” for those already here, as so many on either side of the political fence have been arguing. With the baby boomers retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day, according to Principal Financial Group, the question we should be trying to answer is: How many people with what kinds of skills do we need to fuel the future growth of our economy—and where will they come from? If we’re honest, the answer in many cases is overseas.

Filling America’s workplace needs is a huge challenge. On one end, U.S. agriculture and the food and hospitality industries seem to have an insatiable need for unskilled labor—mostly to do jobs Americans don’t want to do. This should not panic anyone. Unskilled laborers with inadequate (or nonexistent) English-language skills are not infiltrating U.S. factories, taking skilled manufacturing jobs away from American workers. Claims to the contrary are a fiction.

At the other end of the labor market are the thousands of computer, science, engineering, and other high-skill jobs U.S. employers also are having difficulty filling. This is not a new problem. It’s one of the reasons we have the H-1B visa program, which authorizes the annual hiring of up to 85,000 highly skilled (mostly technology) workers per year from overseas. In a country of 310 million, that does not an invasion make.

As Lawrence Downes, a member of the Times’ editorial board, noted in a recent blog post, the H-1B visa program might help close the existing skills gap if we would simply take it one step further, as the Obama administration has proposed, and allow the spouses of H-1B workers to work here as well, provided that the main breadwinner has begun the process of seeking permanent residency in the U.S.

It’s important, of course, that the system not be abused by employers who might be tempted to replace U.S. workers with lower-priced foreign workers. Assuming it’s not being abused; allowing spouses to work as well would seem like a wise idea.

Currently these spouses are not allowed to work. Yet, as Downes points out, “In many cases these workers’ spouses have similar educations and skills.” So we would be doing ourselves a favor to relax the prohibition. This would make it more attractive for families to seek permanent residency, establishing their homes and raising their children here.

The H-1B visa program today has an annual “cap” of 65,000 visas per fiscal year, with some 20,000 additional visas available to job candidates with advanced degrees from U.S. colleges and universities.

According to one statistical review, some 70 percent of all H-1B visa petitions are in the field of computer technology. Further, this analysis shows, of the H-1B visa holders in the computer technology field, 26 percent of the men and 76 percent of the women are married. Yet, in 2013, only half of the eligible spouses accompanied their husbands or wives to the U.S., according to a review by an Austin (Texas) law firm specializing in immigration and family law.

Downes of the Times calls the proposal to relax the restrictions on spousal work “common sense.” I call it compassionate self-interest. Whatever you call it, it’s a good idea.

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