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Immigration and Progress

April 9, 2010


Although the debate over health care reform has grabbed most of the political headlines in the United States over the past few months, immigration reform has also managed to get some press. Immigration remains an emotionally-charged subject. Those at whom most of the vitriol is aimed are illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, as the rhetoric heats up against illegal immigrants the emotion often spills over into the area of legal immigration as well. In an attempt to produce more light than heat, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) have outlined their plan for immigration reform [“2 Senators Offer Immigration Overhaul,” by Julia Preston, New York Times, 18 March 2010]. This bipartisan effort is remarkable considering the bitterly partisan politics that now characterize Congress. Preston reports, “The plan’s emphasis is on making it easier for highly skilled and educated immigrants to come to the United States, including awarding residence documents known as green cards to those who receive advanced degrees in science and technology from American universities. It proposes a limited program for temporary lower-skilled guest workers, tightly keyed to changes in the American labor market.”


In several past posts, I have discussed the importance of attracting the world’s best and brightest to America’s shores. My most recent post on the subject was entitled Entrepreneurs, Innovators, and Immigrants. Those whose voices have been raised the loudest against immigration often claim that immigration exacerbates unemployment in the United States. Graham and Schumer believe otherwise — and they are not alone. They introduced their ideas in an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post [“The right way to mend immigration,” 19 March 2010]. They write:

“Our immigration system is badly broken. Although our borders have become far more secure in recent years, too many people seeking illegal entry get through. We have no way to track whether the millions who enter the United States on valid visas each year leave when they are supposed to. And employers are burdened by a complicated system for verifying workers’ immigration status. Last week we met with President Obama to discuss our draft framework for action on immigration. We expressed our belief that America’s security and economic well-being depend on enacting sensible immigration policies. The answer is simple: Americans overwhelmingly oppose illegal immigration and support legal immigration. Throughout our history, immigrants have contributed to making this country more vibrant and economically dynamic. Once it is clear that in 20 years our nation will not again confront the specter of another 11 million people coming here illegally, Americans will embrace more welcoming immigration policies.”

The senators understand that those 11 million illegal immigrants are the elephant in the room and that no immigration reform can move forward unless they are addressed. For that reason, illegal immigration is the first subject tackled by the senators. They continue:

“Our plan has four pillars: requiring biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs; fulfilling and strengthening our commitments on border security and interior enforcement; creating a process for admitting temporary workers; and implementing a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here. Besides border security, ending illegal immigration will also require an effective employment verification system that holds employers accountable for hiring illegal workers. A tamper-proof ID system would dramatically decrease illegal immigration, experts have said, and would reduce the government revenue lost when employers and workers here illegally fail to pay taxes. We would require all U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who want jobs to obtain a high-tech, fraud-proof Social Security card. Each card’s unique biometric identifier would be stored only on the card; no government database would house everyone’s information. The cards would not contain any private information, medical information or tracking devices. The card would be a high-tech version of the Social Security card that citizens already have. Prospective employers would be responsible for swiping the cards through a machine to confirm a person’s identity and immigration status. Employers who refused to swipe the card or who otherwise knowingly hired unauthorized workers would face stiff fines and, for repeat offenses, prison sentences.”

In May 2006, I wrote, “It is also time to face the fact that some sort of biometric identification system is going to have to be used in the case of ambiguous identity.” [Man versus Machine] A year later (April 2007), I wrote another post entitled Biometric ID Cards that reiterated that belief. So the senators’ recommendation doesn’t surprise me. An additional benefit of biometric Social Security Cards is that it will make it much more difficult for criminals to assume new identities in an attempt to remain a step or two ahead of law enforcement. In the two posts just mentioned, I concluded:

“None of this is going to be easy or cheap. In addition, the line between essential identity verification and intrusion of civil liberties is very thin. In this case, the benefits probably outweigh the risks. It is unhealthy and unproductive to argue continually about illegal immigration without having in a place a system that provides an affordable and reliable way for employers to hire employees without fear of INS raids that can shut them down or cause serious disruptions in the economy.”

The senators go on to discuss how they would beef up border patrols and law enforcement then continue:

“Ending illegal immigration, however, cannot be the sole objective of reform. Developing a rational legal immigration system is essential to ensuring America’s future economic prosperity. Ensuring economic prosperity requires attracting the world’s best and brightest. Our legislation would award green cards to immigrants who receive a PhD or master’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math from a U.S. university. It makes no sense to educate the world’s future inventors and entrepreneurs and then force them to leave when they are able to contribute to our economy.”

They conclude their op-ed piece indicating that a “rational system for admitting lower-skilled workers” must also be included as well as a “tough but fair path forward” for illegal immigrants already in the country. “The American people,” they write, “deserve more than empty rhetoric and impractical calls for mass deportation. We urge the public and our colleagues to join our bipartisan efforts in enacting these reforms.” Although he didn’t mention the senators’ effort in a recent op-ed piece, Thomas Friedman provided more evidence of why sound immigration policies are needed [“America’s Real Dream Team,” New York Times, 21 March 2010]. He writes:

“Went to a big Washington dinner last week. You know the kind: Large hall; black ties; long dresses. But this was no ordinary dinner. There were 40 guests of honor. So here’s my Sunday news quiz: I’ll give you the names of most of the honorees, and you tell me what dinner I was at. Ready? Linda Zhou, Alice Wei Zhao, Lori Ying, Angela Yu-Yun Yeung, Lynnelle Lin Ye, Kevin Young Xu, Benjamin Chang Sun, Jane Yoonhae Suh, Katheryn Cheng Shi, Sunanda Sharma, Sarine Gayaneh Shahmirian, Arjun Ranganath Puranik, Raman Venkat Nelakant, Akhil Mathew, Paul Masih Das, David Chienyun Liu, Elisa Bisi Lin, Yifan Li, Lanair Amaad Lett, Ruoyi Jiang, Otana Agape Jakpor, Peter Danming Hu, Yale Wang Fan, Yuval Yaacov Calev, Levent Alpoge, John Vincenzo Capodilupo and Namrata Anand. No, sorry, it was not a dinner of the China-India Friendship League. Give up? O.K. All these kids are American high school students. They were the majority of the 40 finalists in the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search, which, through a national contest, identifies and honors the top math and science high school students in America, based on their solutions to scientific problems. The awards dinner was Tuesday, and, as you can see from the above list, most finalists hailed from immigrant families, largely from Asia.”

Before returning to the rest of Friedman’s column, I should point out that his admission that “most finalists hailed from immigrant families … from Asia” underscores one of the challenges faced by those interested in reforming immigration. By and large, the illegal immigration problem is not from Asia but from Latin America. Most immigration around the world takes place within regions not across them. This has little to do with race and everything to do with geography. Friedman continues:

“If you need any more convincing about the virtues of immigration, just come to the Intel science finals. I am a pro-immigration fanatic. I think keeping a constant flow of legal immigrants into our country — whether they wear blue collars or lab coats — is the key to keeping us ahead of China. Because when you mix all of these energetic, high-aspiring people with a democratic system and free markets, magic happens. If we hope to keep that magic, we need immigration reform that guarantees that we will always attract and retain, in an orderly fashion, the world’s first-round aspirational and intellectual draft choices. This isn’t complicated. In today’s wired world, the most important economic competition is no longer between countries or companies. The most important economic competition is actually between you and your own imagination. Because what your kids imagine, they can now act on farther, faster, cheaper than ever before — as individuals. Today, just about everything is becoming a commodity, except imagination, except the ability to spark new ideas.”

Ideas, of course, know nothing about borders or ethnicity or politics. Good ideas can come from anywhere; which is why Friedman argues that it is best for America if they come from America. America can stay on top, he argues as long as creativity finds incubation within its borders. He continues:

“If I just have the spark of an idea now, I can get a designer in Taiwan to design it. I can get a factory in China to produce a prototype. I can get a factory in Vietnam to mass manufacture it. I can use Amazon.com to handle fulfillment. I can use freelancer.com to find someone to do my logo and manage my backroom. And I can do all this at incredibly low prices. The one thing that is not a commodity and never will be is that spark of an idea.”

I’ve written a lot about innovation in past posts and I’ve asserted that the one thing you can’t do is turn a pedestrian thinker into a creative thinker. That is not to say that pedestrian thinkers can’t have good ideas — of course they can. But I wouldn’t want to bet the future of my company (or country) on them. Normally a lot of rough ideas need to be proposed in order to find a polished gem. Friedman concludes, “It left me thinking, ‘If we can just get a few things right — immigration, education standards, bandwidth, fiscal policy — maybe we’ll be O.K.’ … As long as we don’t shut our doors.” I think he’s right.

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