The U.S. Immigration Debate Isn’t Left vs. Right

I sometimes find it hard to believe that America’s current immigration systems weren’t designed by our enemies. More liberal policies and streamlined procedures would bring technical talent and entrepreneurial energy at a time when we clearly need them. Yet these reforms remain out of reach.

Overwhelmingly, the best and brightest in the world still want to come here to study, work, and start companies; a worldwide 2012 Gallup poll revealed that the US “holds the undisputed title as the world’s most desired destination for potential migrants.”

We make it overwhelmingly difficult for them, however. As Darrell West of the Brookings Institution summarized, “For many immigrants, it is virtually impossible for them to afford the fees, handle the paperwork, and navigate a complex bureaucratic process…. American immigration is a 19th century process in a 21st century world.”

We’ve made some small progress recently but a recent bipartisan attempt at comprehensive reform, which includes such great ideas as a separate ‘startup visa’ category to foster entrepreneurship, is languishing in the house after passing the Senate last year.

There’s a belief in some quarters that this reform will hurt low-wage American workers (who are already hurting enough) by exposing them to more competition from immigrants and thus lowering their job prospects and wages. But the evidence is mounting that this threat is at worst pretty small, and most likely nonexistent. As the American Enterprise Institute (among many others) has found, immigrants tend to take different jobs than natives, and so are not rivals.

I spoke recently at two events in California organized by FWD.us, a tech industry advocacy group that has to date been squarely focused on immigration (FWD.us covered my travel expenses, but did not pay me anything). At the events themselves, and at the meals and other gatherings around them, the accents varied greatly but the stories didn’t. They were all about enthusiasm and love for America, a deep desire to build a life and make contributions here, and intense frustration at how hard it was to do this.

My favorite quote from the trip was from a very successful (US-born) technologist who said that immigration reform was “not about the right vs. the left; it’s about smart vs. dumb.”

Which side are you on?

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