Fixing America’s Stupid Immigration Policy

Jon Huntsman calls for an end to "unforced errors in immigration policy."

Jon Huntsman tweeted this morning, “Human capital is a cornerstone of our economy, no more unforced errors in immigration policy. ” He then links to his op-ed in the WSJ titled “A GOP Opportunity on Immigration.”

According to a 2011 Kauffman Foundation study, an immigrant is twice as likely to start a company as an American born here. A quarter of all American high-technology firms founded between 1995 and 2005 have had at least one immigrant founder, and 42% of the individuals who earn doctorates in science and engineering from our universities were born overseas.

Given these achievements, imagine the opportunity costs of the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement, which restricted Japanese immigration; the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; and the 1924 Immigration Act, which effectively ended mass Eastern and Southern European immigration. Those laws deprived the United States of millions of talented and driven citizens.

We should not be making the same error today that past generations have made. Yet we are. Rather than lead and work with Congress to deliver permanent solutions, President Obama chose to use an executive order as a policy Band-Aid for young people caught in our immigration laws. This was political theater. America deserves better.

Republicans meeting in Tampa this week should offer a clear alternative. The party should champion a plank that will enhance economic growth by embracing immigrants.

That’s, of course, highly unlikely. Not only is the party base wrongheaded on immigration policy but the platform is already written. Still, his prescription is one that’s salable to the base.  Huntsman argues that we’re focusing our energies on the wrong end of the immigration spectrum:

The situation has changed radically from 2007, when President George W. Bush’s effort to reform our immigration laws collapsed in Congress. People aren’t crossing our borders—legally or illegally—as they once were, because there are fewer jobs available. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Mexican immigration may have actually reversed in 2011, with outflows surpassing immigration to the U.S.

While lack of opportunity is reducing the low-skilled illegal population, those who are already here need to be brought out of the shadows of a nation they are already a part of. Most important, the debate must move away from illegal immigration toward immigration as a cornerstone of economic vitality.

Alas, the illegal immigration debate has the most saliency and is unlikely to be resolved in a sane direction in a time of economy crisis. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fix the less controversial part of our policy.

Work-based immigration programs like the H-1B visa, which is a temporary program for workers with special skill sets, have to be expanded. Foreign graduates of American universities simply have to be given the opportunity to pursue U.S. citizenship. Beyond that, we must move from passively opening our arms to immigrants to actively seeking them.

Let’s start by making sure that graduates of elite foreign universities who receive degrees in mathematics, science or engineering can immigrate to the U.S. if they so choose. Every U.S. Embassy should work with the private sector to continuously identify and recruit local talent. Such initiatives won’t only bring talent here—they will allow us to deny it to our competitors.

Immigrants also create backward linkages to their native lands, facilitating investment abroad and attracting foreign direct investment to the U.S. Additional foreign capital could be attracted to our shores by expanding the EB-5 program, which provides green cards for immigrants who invest a set amount in the U.S. or create jobs there—and by reforming our broken and backlogged visa system at our consulates abroad to increase travel and tourism opportunities.

I’m in favor of all these things, although I must admit to being a bit queasy  on moral grounds about encouraging a brain drain out of less prosperous countries. It’s both good for us and bad for them to soak up the talented people others have invested resources to train. If nothing else, the old “staple a green card to every STEM degree earned by a foreigner in an American university” idea makes sense in this regard.

As he demonstrated during his quixotic presidential campaign, Huntsman can’t resist twisting the knife a bit:

For far too long we as a nation have tolerated an ugly nativist strain that dresses itself up with legitimate concerns about security and the breakdown of the rule of law. This is nothing new. It wasn’t long ago that “Irish need not apply” signs dotted Boston, and laws in some places banned speaking German. But we would be fools not to learn from our history, since our competitors—like Singapore, which is working to attract immigrants—surely are.

He’s right. But that’s not exactly the most effective way to appeal to the ugly nativists whose minds need to be changed for this to happen.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Economics and Business, US Politics, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    The only way to change is to have the party that’s pandering to the nativists to continue to be punished at the polls until they are a fringe.

  2. I’m in favor of all these things, although I must admit to being a bit queasy on moral grounds about encouraging a brain drain out of less prosperous countries. It’s both good for us and bad for them to soak up the talented people others have invested resources to train.

    It’s not like they are locked in. Indeed one of the recent trends has been “late returns” by middle aged and experienced people to start businesses in their home countries.

    I’m all in favor of visas for rich and/or educated people. While we are certain to get many applicants, we are no longer the only destination.

  3. BTW, in a practical sense, I think the Republicans are blocked on an immigration policy by their inability to deal rationally with the illegal immigration policy.

    Work visas are the only pragmatic answer. A party that can’t deal with that, can’t deal with the rest.

  4. Rob in CT says:

    I too would like to see immigration reform. Having laws that are unenforced/unenforceable is a bad thing, for one. Having a bunch of people living and working here but hiding from the law is also bad, IMO. Third, yes, I’d like to see more effort at getting smart/educated immigrants to come here and become citizens (as opposed to just working here and then leaving).

    What I’d like to see is a combination of the following:

    Allow more legal immigration from South ‘o the Border. They’re coming, one way or another, and I’d rather have them on the grid than off. I’m also open to a guest worker visa option. That was one of the few things I think Bush the Younger had right.

    Tougher enforcement, focusing on employers.

    Entice smart/educated immigrants with incentives.

  5. Fiona says:

    I don’t see Huntsman’s last paragraph as twisting the knife. It’s refreshing to see a politician tell the truth, especially when it’s been his party that’s tried to win votes by playing on nativist fears.

    We’ve made it increasingly difficult for well-educated immigrants to stay in this country. One of my husband’s coworkers, an Indian hoping to get his green card, showed my husband a chart of the green card process demonstrating how easy it is to make a wrong turn and get sent home. As it is, the laws regarding green cards basically force companies into expensive and borderline unethical behavior in order to retain a valued employee.

    Unfortunately, immigration has become yet another one of those red-button issues that shuts down rational debate. Just look at how much flack The Gingrich and Perry got in the Republican debates when they dared show a bit of compassion for illegal immigrants. Only when the Republicans regain some bit of rationality will we be able to have any real debate about immigration policy. I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Rather than lead and work with Congress to deliver permanent solutions, President Obama chose to use an executive order as a policy Band-Aid for young people caught in our immigration laws.

    I can not help pointing out the partisan point of view of recent history Mr Huntsman exercises with this statement.

    Hey Jon, who among Congress voted for the Dream Act?
    Who voted against it?
    Who pushed for it and said he would sign it if it got to his desk?
    So who did what he could with an executive order despite the GOP?

    Time and again Republicans call it a “failure of leadership” on Obama’s part when they engage in naked obstructionism of everything he tries to do. Yeah, I guess that is a failure of leadership… But then seeing as they want to go in the opposite direction and the Dems refuse to follow, I guess they are equally guilty of a “failure of leadership.”

  7. grumpy realist says:

    Our immigration system at present is something out of Kafka. All those people who used to work at the local DMV and drive you bonkers? They’ve all ended up in the Immigration section. I watched my boyfriend go through the hassle of getting a green card: an agency manned by incompetent, inconsiderate, tinpot little dictators.

  8. al-Ameda says:

    I agree that there are many things about America’s immigration policy that need fixing, and Huntsman’s WSJ piece outlines them nicely. That said, as long as we have the current obstructionist Republican Congress any hope of accomplishing even a tiny portion what Huntsman suggests is nil.

  9. John D'Geek says:

    We do not need more H1-B visas — we need less. Bob Cringely wrote quite a bit about it (here (an IT labor economics lesson from Memphis) and here (IT class warfare).

    There’s actually a lot more, for those that care to peruse the site.

  10. @John D’Geek:

    As long as I was an engineer there were people who worried about immigration. I just concentrated on outperforming my peers. That worked for me.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not concerned about immigration, largely for demographic reasons. Check the demography of Latin America and the Caribbean some time. Past results are not necessarily good predictors of future outcomes.

    In terms of illegal immigration I don’t believe that we have a broad-based problem. We have had a problem with illegal immigration from Mexico. As john personna suggested above that should be addressed by increasing the number of work visas available to Mexican nationals substantially.

    As to H1-Bs I’ve made my proposal. I think there should be a central clearing house where companies post the positions for which they’re requesting H1-Bs along with the pay they’re offering and that they should be required to hire locals with the stated credentials if they present themselves. The only circumstances under which they should receive an H1-B should be if a) the pay they’re offering is the legitimate market rate and b) they have no local takers with the requisite credentials. That’s basically the law as it stands. I’m proposing making it easier to enforce.

  12. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Huntsman’s plan in a lot of ways is similar to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s plan, the latter of which has been in place for years — albeit unreported by the media, for obvious reasons — and ironically enough was the general framework for W. Bush’s 2005-2006 proposed immigration overhaul.

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for major reforms to be enacted. The far left is hell bent on a completely open borders policy. The Democrat Party apparatus doesn’t really want reform. From their standpoint it’s better to have a wedge issue with which to demonize the GOP. The extreme right is opposed to any form of amnesty, without which immigration reform is pointless.

  13. Jen says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Eh, I just see that as a throwaway line so that the population that reads the WSJ would finish the article.

    I still wish Huntsman were at the top of the Republican ticket.

  14. @Dave Schuler:

    FWIW, I worked as a consultant, at a higher rate than company employees, while never having a certificate or even a degree in the field.

  15. @Tsar Nicholas:

    I think libertarians want open borders. The far left wants more legal immigration, and probably prefers laborers to PhDs.

  16. dennis says:

    @Jen:

    Damn right, Jen. I would vote for Huntsman in a heartbeat. With John Danforth as VP. Or vice-versa.

  17. Dave Schuler says:

    @john personna:

    I think the open borders contingent is the unlikely coalition of the Wall Street Journal and whoever believes everything on the WSJ’s editorial page, libertarians left and right, and political operatives who see new immigrants as reliable voters.

  18. Rob in CT says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    This.

    One thing to note is that my call for “stricter enforcement, focusing on employers” and Dave’s H1-B proposal (which I like, if it can be done) both strike me as ripe for the usual “crippling government regulation of business!” attacks. Particulary the H1-B thing. YMMV.

  19. rudderpedals says:

    Let’s not shy away from calling the H1B program what it is: Human arbitrage. It’d be nice to have a debate on the propriety of a govt policy that leverages imported hobbled workers to displace and suppress salaries of American-homed workers but it wouldn’t be a conversation friendly to multinationals.

  20. @rudderpedals:

    Well, isn’t it similar to other immigration debates? Ones that ignore globalization realities?

    In the contract I worked, I was the sole US resident of a 9 person development team. 5 in Russia, 2 in Japan, 1 in the Philippines, and me in the US.

    Explain how, in that scenario H1B visas improve or undermine US employment?

  21. (I guess this is where I show I’m not “left.” I’m harsh and capitalist enough that I want the best employees available for work in the US, and if anyone can’t hack the competition, that’s what the safety net is for.)

  22. “in the [last] contract I worked…”

  23. Scott says:

    I don’t have any ready data but I suspect our anti-immigration policies are hurting the economy, especially the housing market. If there has been a net outflow of people leaving that is a lot of housing stock that is not being rented or bought.

  24. rudderpedals says:

    @john personna: I need more info. Were your colleagues all US-based in country on an H1B?

  25. @rudderpedals:

    No, I was the only one in-country. We were nonetheless a single engineering team “at” a small company. We used skype all day, a vpn, and a secure repository at rackspace.

  26. Herb says:

    John Huntsman would go far in the Democratic Party. Staying in the GOP pretty much guarantees he’s going to be an also-ran writing op-eds for life.

  27. michael reynolds says:

    Again, the narrow obsession with STEM. You guys realize that Hollywood and US publishing dominate their respective worldwide markets to a degree that our engineering hasn’t since the 50’s?

    Astounding as it may seem to you math folk, the US is the dominant cultural force on earth, has been for quite some time, and remains unchallenged in any meaningful way. You STEM people should only be doing half as well as we “creatives.” So, maybe we should be letting in more writers, artists, fashion designers, choreographers, directors, etc…

    Hollywood was created by immigrant Jews who I doubt had an advanced degree between them. (Parenthetically, Steve Jobs would not have qualified for a H1B visa. Neither would Bill Gates. Neither had a college degree.) You don’t know where the next big thing is going to come from. What we want is smart, creative, capable people in all fields, not just engineers.

    Sheesh. Narcissists much?

  28. Latino_in_Boston says:

    Yes and yes, Mr. Huntsman, but I think you fail to realize how little policy virtues matter for the GOP in deciding whether to support or not. As long as they have a majority in their party who want to stop demographic, cultural and economic change from occurring, to argue that by embracing it we’d all be better off is just words on a page.

  29. rudderpedals says:

    @john personna: Thank you. My issues with H1B don’t reach your example because the H1B program brings engineers here in a very unfree way, as indentured servants paid low wages locked into their sponsor. That’s not a level playing field. These bright people should be immigrating, joining us as citizens subject to the same pressures and able to embark on the same opportunities as the rest of us.

  30. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: I think the emphasis on STEM exists precisely because we’re doing so well growing our own in other fields. We’re having a hell of a time getting our bright people into STEM and are training the bright people of other countries and then forcing them to go home. But, yeah, I think we should be welcoming very talented people from across the board.

  31. Gustopher says:

    The current system of H1B for the STEM folks is completely broken — it creates a bunch of second class workers whose ability to stay in the country is tied to their current employment. Whenever I hear calls for immigration reform, people,start suggesting guest worker visas, which are just going to create the same problem in other fields.

    I don’t want guest workers. I want Americans. Come from wherever, work, be part of the community, get citizenship, vote, send some money back home, bring some relatives here, make our country stronger, not just the balance sheet of some company that doesn’t have to pay market wages for workers if they are foreigners.

  32. sam says:

    Imagine if you can being 6 years old and crossing the Mexican and Arizona deserts to get here: Young and Alone, Facing Court and Deportation .

  33. anjin-san says:
  34. Console says:

    Immigration is tough to crack because it runs into the typical idea that if we help X group of people become successful, then they will find success at Y’s expense.

    In all reality, if you asked someone whether or not it would be smart for their city to forbid people from moving there, they’d intuitively recognize that such a restriction would hurt their city economically. But when it comes to immigration all of a sudden it’s “they’re competing with us and taking our jobs!”

  35. Dave Schuler says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Part of it is narcissism and part is sense of proportion. There are single tech companies in the U. S. whose annual revenues are larger than the entire publishing and Hollywood movie-making industries put together. Take HP, for example. Its total 2011 net revenues were around $127 billion. Total U. S. publishing industry net revenues for 2011 were under $1 billion.

  36. Dave Schuler says:

    @James Joyner:

    IMO a lot of the concerns about not enough H1-Bs and not enough homegrown engineers are hooey. Post doc programs in the sciences are getting longer and longer. Why? Because there aren’t enough jobs in their fields to go around. There are plenty of unemployed engineers and mathematicians around. Companies are abusing the H1-B process to push wages down which in turn discourages young Americans from going into engineering, science, or math.

  37. bill says:

    i have no issue with immigrants, they seem to be thankful for being able to make a decent life for themselves for the most part. it’s when the 2nd generation kicks in and turn into slackers that feel entitled to everything and lose their parents work ethic. i call it, becoming an American.

  38. Mikhail says:

    Subject individual had been living as a registered stateless person in the United States for the last 16 years. IIn December 29, 2011, he took a vacation in the US territory of American Samoa but was barred and denied entry into the United States because accordingly, he had self-deported himself as per internal immigration rules of American Samoa. He cannot live nor work in American Samoa and is currently under the custody of the Attorney General’s Office of the said territory.

    Please help us to sign our petition:

    http://www.change.org/petitions/us-secretary-janet-napolitano-discretionary-decision-in-favor-of-mikhail-sebastian-s-return-to-the-us

  39. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: That’s quite plausible as well. We’re cranking out a lot of foreign-born engineers and such but it might be a function of domestic types wising up as to the real state of the job market.

  40. It varies. Unemployment for computer scientists is 4.3%, for civil engineering it is 13.2%.

  41. Lynda says:

    @Dave Schuler:
    Speaking as someone with a Physics degree the problem with a lot of STEM graduates is not their lack of technical expertise – it is their interpersonal skills that make working in a team challenging.

    The reason many US companies use H1-B employees is that despite the linguistic differences the foreign graduates can express their ideas better than their US counterparts, will work collaboratively to solve problems and also have a wider knowledge of the world outside their computer monitors.

    A team of introspective geniuses sounds great until you actually have to manage one and produce a product to a deadline.

  42. superdestroyer says:

    I find it odd that a plan of converting unlimited illegal immigration to unlimited legal immigration is considered a sane approach.

    The first question that everyone who promotes immigration reform should state who would they keep out of the country. Huntsman seems to always avoid the question of who should be keep out of the U.S. I suspect that Huntsman would be quite happy with the free flow of people into and out of the U.S.

    I guess that to Huntsman, seeking status with the left of the political spectrum is worth throwing every American majoring in STEM and every middle class American that works in the private sector under the bus.

    Does Huntsman really believe that adding more Korean dry cleaners, Vietnamese nail salons, and Chinese take out restaurants will create enough jobs for the 300 million people who want to move the U.S.?

  43. Dave Schuler says:

    @Lynda:

    What you’re describing is a violation of Pub. Law 89-236 and is actionable. If employers need to bring in workers because of their superior communication and interpersonal skills, they should have the law amended accordingly.

  44. superdestroyer says:

    @michael reynolds:

    STEM jobs are normally distributed with a high mean income. Hollywood and publishing are log-normally distributed career fields where a few people get rich and most people make almost nothing. Also, STEM pays in a more regular manner than the arts where people can long periods of time with little to no income.

    Also, due to the barrier of entry and the credentialism, STEM does not have hangers-on like Hollywood, the theater, or publishing.

  45. MarkedMan says:

    James, I have to wonder if part of the reason you continue to pull that “R” lever is because of people like John Huntsman. But believing that a little dash of John Huntsman justifies continued support of your party today seems kind of like the guy who tells himself it is OK to eat that pint of Ben and Jerry’s because, hey, after all, he climbed up three flights of stairs today rather than take the elevator (i.e. the perceived correction is so much smaller than the problem that the justification is ludicrous).

  46. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: The likes of Huntsman were pretty much the norm in the GOP until very, very recently. For a variety of reasons, they’ve been shunted off into a corner by the base. I’m still hoping they can fight back to power and am trying to help make that happen.

    Like several of the commenters here, I’m in nowhere land–somewhere between the overlap of the most moderate faction of the Republican Party and the most conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Both are tiny at the national elected level.

    Since we don’t have a parliamentary system, I can vote for Romney—who I still believe is the guy who was governor of Massachusetts, even while I’ve hated his presidential campaign pandering going back to 2007—without having to endorse the likes of Akin or Angle or Bachmann.

  47. superdestroyer says:

    @James Joyner:

    Huntsman was your typical Repulbican during the 40 years that the Democrats dominated Congress and actually dominated politics in the U.S. Huntsman comes from the country club, Gerald Ford branch of the Republican Party that was quite happy to have Democrats run most everything and have their way in policy and governance.

    If Republicans want people who will let the Democrats lead them around by the nose, then Huntsman is their guy. Of course, if giving the Huntsman whatever they want, the government gets bigger, more intrusive, taxes go up, and the middle class gets squeezed.

    How does giving Huntsman power help any fiscal conservative, social conservative, or libertarian? the only voters who would be happy with Huntsman are the cheap labor, big government, compassionate conservatives who believe that the point of politics is getting goodies from the government.

  48. superdestroyer says:

    @James Joyner:

    Huntsman was your typical Repulbican during the 40 years that the Democrats dominated Congress and actually dominated politics in the U.S. Huntsman comes from the country club, Gerald Ford branch of the Republican Party that was quite happy to have Democrats run most everything and have their way in policy and governance.

    If Republicans want people who will let the Democrats lead them around by the nose, then Huntsman is their guy. Of course, if giving the Huntsman whatever they want, the government gets bigger, more intrusive, taxes go up, and the middle class gets squeezed.

    How does giving Huntsman power help any fiscal conservative, social conservative, or libertarian? the only voters who would be happy with Huntsman are the cheap labor, big government, compassionate conservatives who believe that the point of politics is getting goodies from the government.

  49. Rob in CT says:

    unlimited immigration

    The only one discussing this is you, Supe. As usual. The only people in America who actually favor such are hardcore libertarians. The lefties tend to get into “they take our jobs” territory too, as you move left of center. Liberals are indeed squishy about things like fences and machine gun towers, but they’re not actually in favor of what you call “open borders.”

    When you have to erect strawmen to make your argument…

  50. @James Joyner:

    Since we don’t have a parliamentary system, I can vote for Romney—who I still believe is the guy who was governor of Massachusetts, even while I’ve hated his presidential campaign pandering going back to 2007—without having to endorse the likes of Akin or Angle or Bachmann.

    There are actually two gambles there. One is that Mitt is still Massachusetts Mitt. The second is that Massachusetts Mitt will have the strength and resolve to face down the Teas on Congress.

    Kind of like putting everything on 23, if you know what I mean.

  51. Console says:

    @superdestroyer:

    How does giving Huntsman power help any fiscal conservative, social conservative, or libertarian? the only voters who would be happy with Huntsman are the cheap labor, big government, compassionate conservatives who believe that the point of politics is getting goodies from the government.

    I’m sorry, but does this assessment take place in an alternate universe where Romney doesn’t end up getting the nomination?

  52. @Console:

    We probably won’t change superdestroyer’s mind (understatement) but there is an important graphs here for everyone else. See “Manufacturing Jobs as Percentage of All Jobs”

    We (I) have long been saying that jobs have been hit by globalization and automation. That graph would seem to say that automation matters more, that the trend started sooner. Manufacturing Jobs as Percentage of All Jobs have been falling since 1955. Now the charts I’ve seen with higher resolution look like there might be an inflection around 2000, where the pace increased, but there is no doubt that we are at a plateau now.

    So in a country with 10% manufacturing jobs, what is the threat from unskilled immigration? Are we down to “protecting” low end service jobs?

  53. swbarnes2 says:

    @James Joyner:

    Since we don’t have a parliamentary system, I can vote for Romney—who I still believe is the guy who was governor of Massachusetts,

    Good grief, another “I know what’s in his heart” argument.

    That’s not relevent, and you know it. What’s relevent is, what policies would President Romney carry out? What evidence is there that Romney will stand up to Tea Party activists and say “No, I won’t sign that bill”?

    For example, when conservatives hounded Romney about Grenell, did he stand up for him, or did he cave?

    But I think I see why you keep harmping on this “what matter is what’s in his heart” bit.

    If we judged you by the policies set forth by the conservatives you voted for, what would we conclude?