Three words currently reign supreme in Washington: comprehensive immigration reform.
At stake are millions of potential votes.
Since the end of 2012, a bipartisan group of eight senators has worked to develop an immigration reform package. Earlier this month, an immigration reform bill drafted by President Obama and his advisors was leaked. Apparently, it will serve as a backup in case Congress fails to deliver “comprehensive” reform. It seems that on immigration reform, Democrats and Republicans agree on the oft-repeated declaration, “The time is now.”
Politics, for all the criticism it draws, is often eventually able to help elected officials hone in on the crucial details of important issues. The current immigration reform debate, however, is a case in which this has not held true.
Historically, when discussing immigration reform, presidents and Congress have quite intently focused their efforts on the issue of providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. President Obama and the 113th Congress are no exception.
The White House and Congress have, to date, argued over such details as the length of the border between the United States and Mexico; timelines for deportation of illegal immigrants; crime thresholds for refusing a pathway to citizenship; and the scope of back taxes.
Yet, they have almost entirely ignored legal immigration. Except to mention in timid fashion—as if there should be any doubt in the first place—that they will require illegal immigrants to go to the back of the line. Much of the impetus for this ignorance is political calculation. However, if the White House and Congress have genuine concern for the growth and vitality of the United States, they will heed the need to reform the legal immigration process.
The U.S. legal immigration system is outdated, illogical, and backlogged.
Currently, there are approximately 26 million legal immigrants in the United States. According to the immigration process as it stands today, it will take at least 5 years for them to receive their green card. They will then have to wait at least another 5 years to take the citizenship exam in order to become naturalized citizens. Many legal immigrants are perfectly willing to go through this slow and bureaucratic process. Yet, why must they wait when apparently those who are here illegally can escape this process altogether?
Obama and Congress would do well to focus first on accelerating the granting of work visas, green cards, and citizenship to legal immigrants.
Similarly inefficient is the process for allowing foreign university students to gain permanent legal residency. Tens of thousands of international students, even those who have earned Masters and doctoral degrees and have been hired by an American employer, return to their native country each year following graduation because only employers have the ability to apply for a green card petition for these students. This petition, however, does not guarantee that the student in question will eventually receive his green card.
Many of these skilled foreign students would like to continue to live in the United States in order to take advantage of the superior professional opportunities available here. In the process, they would provide valuable contributions to exactly the sectors of the economy—medical, technology, and financial services—which need help.
Obama has continued to emphasize the need for skilled workers in the STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—fields. There currently exists a population capable and willing to fill part of this void: legal immigrants. If allowed to become permanent legal residents and citizens more quickly, they would have stronger and more incentives to pursue high quality jobs here rather than return to their native country.
Obama and Congress continue to view immigration in purely electoral terms. They therefore resort to grand ideas of providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. They should instead view immigration as a tool to help the United States grow its economy robustly. Their goal should be to attract and keep immigrants capable of contributing to this growth.
Thus, any deal on immigration reform should follow this simple and logical precept: restrict illegal immigration immediately and simplify and accelerate the legal immigration process.
Raj Kannappan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at rk398@cornell. edu.