Broken and Obsolete

An immigration deadlock makes the U.S. a second-rate nation

As the American economy sags, the race for the presidency gets tighter—except in one dimension. Hispanic Americans continue to support Barack Obama by an astonishing 61%-to-27% margin. Were Obama to win, it might well be because of his attitudes on one issue: immigration. But it is an issue on which he will be unable to enact any of his preferences, let alone those policies that many Latinos support. The Republican Party has taken a tough stand on the topic. Democrats have their own bright lines. That means America’s immigration system is likely to stay as it is right now—utterly broken.

We think of ourselves as the world’s great immigrant society, and of course, for most of the country’s history, that has been true. But something fascinating has happened over the past two decades. Other countries have been transforming themselves into immigrant societies, adopting many of America’s best ideas and even improving on them. The result: the U.S. is not as exceptional as it once was, and its immigration advantage is lessening.

Would you have guessed that Canada and Australia both have a higher percentage of foreign-born residents than the U.S.? In fact, in this respect, America—which once led the world—–increasingly looks like many other Western countries. France, Germany and the U.K. have only slightly fewer foreign-born residents than America (as a percentage of the population). And some of these countries have managed to take in immigrants mostly based on their skills, giving a big boost to their economies.

Canadian immigration policy is now centered on recruiting talented immigrants with abilities the country needs. Those individuals can apply for work visas themselves; they don’t even need to have an employer. The Canadian government awards points toward the visa, with extra points for science education, technical skills and work experience.

The results of the system are evident in Vancouver, where American high-–technology companies like Microsoft have large research laboratories and offices. The people working in these –offices are almost all foreign graduates of American universities who could not get work visas in the U.S. They moved a few hours north to Vancouver, where they live in a city much like those on the American West Coast. Except, of course, that they will pay taxes, file patents, make inventions and hire people in Canada.

Sixty-two percent of permanent-resident visas in Canada are based on skills, while the remainder are for family unification. In the U.S., the situation is almost exactly the reverse: two-thirds of America’s immigrants enter through family unification, while only 13% of green cards are granted because of talent, merit and work. And it’s actually gotten worse over time. The cap on applications for H1-B –visas (for highly skilled immigrants) has dropped in half over the past decade.

It’s not as if America doesn’t need these people. American companies are struggling to fill 3.7 million job openings, many of them in science-–related fields. Meanwhile, foreign students receive half of all doctorates in such fields, and almost all of them will head home after graduation. (In recent years, the H1-B visa limit was reached within the first few days of filing!) New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls America’s immigration policy the single biggest problem facing the economy and argues that our current approach is “national suicide.”

It isn’t just Canada to which America is losing the best and brightest. Australia, Britain and Singapore are all wooing the world’s most talented graduates. And then there are China and India, where many of these graduates come from. As those countries develop economically, new opportunities grow there, and lots of Indians and Chinese decide to go back home. The Beijing government makes a serious effort to recruit many of these people, from recent college graduates to tenured professors at the world’s best universities. The evidence is that increasingly it is succeeding.

But none of these broad –arguments to reform America’s immigration system will make much difference while the partisan standoff remains. Those who have hard-line views on this topic believe that immigration reform must start with taking control of the border through more stringent patrols, more effective fences and wider deportations like those that have been under way for years.

While the ideological battles over immigration persist, something strange has happened on the ground: Mexican immigration to America is slowing to a standstill. The Pew Hispanic Center released a report in April showing that net Mexican migration into the U.S.—those entering minus those going back to Mexico—is now zero and that the number of Mexicans going back might actually now be higher than the number entering. This trend might be partly a product of tougher enforcement, but it is most likely caused by economic weakness in the U.S. coupled with a striking decline in Mexican fertility rates (which is itself caused by more education and opportunities in Mexico).

Whether or not this trend holds, the U.S. has to deal with the workers who are already here. The most sensible solution would be to craft legislation that would deport those who have criminal rec–ords and give some kind of legal status to the others. The path to citizenship for these workers should properly be long, placing them behind regular applicants and visa holders, and could take 15 years, during which they would have to pay all their taxes and abide by all laws.

That would allow a real reform of the system. We should sharply reduce the number of legal immigrants who arrive because they are sponsored by a family –member. We should expand massively the number who come in because they have skills we need. We should recognize that certain industries do need temporary workers—farms in California, for example—and those industries could set up temporary-–worker programs so crops can get picked during harvesting season. Ideally, such a bill would be bipartisan, sponsored by a prominent Democrat and an equally prominent Republican. Naturally, it should have the strong support of the President.

The tragedy, of course, is that we had such a bill. It was sponsored in 2005 by Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy and strongly supported by then President George W. Bush. It did not even get to the floor of the Senate or House for a vote. The right hated it because it provided a legal path for undocumented workers, the left because it reduced family unification. And the unions opposed the –temporary-worker provisions.

In an earlier era, the fact that the more extreme wings of the parties disliked the bill might actually have made passage easier, because that meant it was supported at the center, where the action lay. Today all the power has shifted to the wings of the two parties, who control their agendas. The failure of immigration reform is a metaphor for the breakdown of the political process. The simple fact is that in a country of more than 300 million people, any policy is going to have opponents—not everyone agrees with you—but the opponents can now paralyze the process. So nothing gets done.

It’s a sad state, because the U.S. remains a model for the world. It is the global melting pot, the place where a universal nation is being created. We may not do immigration better than everyone else anymore, but we do assimilation better than anyone else. People from all over the world come to this country and, almost magically, become Americans.

They—I should say we—come to the country with drive and dedication and over time develop a fierce love for America. This infusion of talent, hard work and patriotism has kept the country vital for the past two centuries. And if we can renew it, it will keep America vital in the 21st century as well.