A Bipartisan Opportunity on Immigration Reform

By at 16 January, 2013, 11:59 am

by Raymond J. Keating-

Immigration reform stands out as an opportunity for constructive bipartisanship in President Barack Obama’s second term.

People come to this country for four basic reasons. First, they seek greater opportunity, i.e., a better life. Second, they flee oppression in their homelands in favor of freedom. Third, they wish to be united with family. Or fourth, they come to inflict harm on the United States.

For the most part, immigration has overwhelmingly been about the first reason, i.e., seeking opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families.

And as most economists will tell you, immigration is an economic plus. When the economy is growing, immigrants fill labor demands from businesses and, ultimately, consumers. These immigrants do jobs that the native born will not or cannot, or there simply are not enough native born to meet the demand for labor in various positions.

So, for example, at the low-skilled end to the high-skilled end of the jobs spectrum, immigrants benefit the economy by doing work that is complementary to the jobs performed by the native born. That’s a win-win-win-win for businesses, consumers, native-born workers and the immigrants.

By the way, along these same lines, it is worth noting that immigration from Mexico has slowed or reversed in recent years given the poor state of the U.S. economy – which reinforces the point about immigration being driven by economic opportunity, or the lack thereof.

Finally, and arguably most important, immigrants tends to be more entrepreneurial than the native born. Just consider findings in the high-tech arena from a 2007 study done by researchers at Duke University and the University of California, at Berkeley. Namely, that among technology and engineering companies started up in the United States between 1995 and 2005, 25.3 percent had at least one key founder who was foreign born.

In addition, in a January 2012 report titled “Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Creating Jobs and Strengthening the Economy” from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Immigration Policy Center (IPC), it was noted, “Immigrants are more likely than native workers to choose self-employment and starting their own businesses. Of naturalized citizens, 5.1% were employed in their own incorporated businesses, compared with only 3.7% of employed native-born citizens who were employed in their own incorporated businesses.”

If we want a growing economy, we need people willing to take the enormous risks of starting up their own businesses. Immigrants, as exhibited by a willingness to leave their home country in order to seek opportunity elsewhere, obviously are risk takers, and they should be welcomed.

However, our immigration system is broken. It does not work. That’s best illustrated by the fact that the system cannot deal with the need for increased immigration in certain industries – such as in the high-tech arena – and broadly when the economy is growing at a healthy pace.

Is this an issue where both parties can agree to reforms that will actually help the economy?

Well, Marco Rubio, the Republican U.S. senator from Florida, was the subject of “The Weekend Interview” piece in the January 14 Wall Street Journal, with the focus being on immigration. The Journal reported: “His wholesale fix tries to square—triangulate, if you will—the liberal fringe that seeks broad amnesty for illegal immigrants and the hard right’s obsession with closing the door. Mr. Rubio would ease the way for skilled engineers and seasonal farm workers while strengthening border enforcement and immigration laws. As for the undocumented migrants in America today—eight to 12 million or so—he proposes to let them ‘earn’ a working permit and, one day, citizenship.”

Rubio pointed out that “legal immigration has been, for our country, one of the things that makes us vibrant and exceptional.” He favors both family-based immigration and “merit and skill-based immigration.” Rubio was quoted, “I don’t think there’s a lot of concern in this country that we’ll somehow get overrun by Ph.D.s and entrepreneurs.” He favors raising the hard cap on those bringing skills and investment to the U.S.

As for agricultural workers, overwhelmingly Latino and many undocumented, Rubio recognizes the need to “give American agriculture a reliable work force and to give protection to these workers as well.” He also recognizes that the current system is difficult, expensive, does not work well, and that “that alone encourages illegal immigration.” He favors increasing the number of visas for permanent or seasonal farm workers.

As for what to do about the roughly 11 million undocumented workers in the nation, the Journal reported the following: “‘Here’s how I envision it,’ he says. ‘They would have to come forward. They would have to undergo a background check.’ Anyone who committed a serious crime would be deported. ‘They would be fingerprinted,’ he continues. ‘They would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, maybe even do community service. They would have to prove they’ve been here for an extended period of time. They understand some English and are assimilated. Then most of them would get legal status and be allowed to stay in this country.’” It’s hard to see how undocumented workers could be dealt with otherwise, nor why one would wish to do otherwise, such as going down the inhumane, economically destructive path of deportation.

Interestingly, there are welcome similarities between Rubio’s immigration agenda and that espoused by President Obama. For example, back in May 2011, the President said regarding undocumented workers: “Those who are here illegally, they have a responsibility as well.  So they broke the law, and that means they’ve got to pay their taxes, they’ve got to pay a fine, they’ve got to learn English.  And they’ve got to undergo background checks and a lengthy process before they get in line for legalization.”

As for key reforms regarding immigration and the economy, the President’s plan calls for: “Our immigration laws should continue to reunify families and encourage individuals we train in our world-class institutions to stay and develop new technologies and industries in the United States rather than abroad. The law should stop punishing innocent young people whose parents brought them here illegally and give those young men and women a chance to stay in this country if they serve in the military or pursue higher education. A smart 21st century system should also provide farmers a legal way to hire the workers they rely on year after year, and it should improve procedures for employers who seek to hire foreign workers for jobs if U.S. workers are not available.” Again, there is common ground here on which to negotiate and build.

Unfortunately, both Obama and Rubio also favor having businesses play immigration police. The Journal noted that Rubio “says that modern technology—whether E-Verify or something else—ought to let employers easily check whether their hires are in the country legally. Enforcement is meant not to ‘punish’ but to provide employers ‘safe haven,’ he says.” But the reality is that businesses face increased costs and threats when government imposes immigration enforcement duties on these entrepreneurs and enterprises.

In the end, immigration reform should open and expand avenues for legal immigration, so as to welcome those seeking opportunity, freedom and being with family, while using resources wisely to stop those who would come here to inflict harm. It also means that government fully accept and carry out its duties regarding border and immigration policies, rather than trying to shove some of those tasks off on the business community.

When looking at where the President is and where a Republican like Marco Rubio is, hope exists that positive immigration reform is possible.


Raymond J. Keating is chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.


Keating has written two new books titled Root of All Evil? A Pastor Stephen Grant Novel, and An Advent for Religious Liberty: A Pastor Stephen Grant Novel.


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