Still No Clear Path to Boost High-Skilled Immigration

Both parties want to bring more entrepreneurs and scientists in the country, but can’t agree how to get there.

Rep. John Delaney speaks at a National Journal event on high-skilled immigration June 2, 2015.
National Journal
Caitlin Owens
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Caitlin Owens
June 2, 2015, 9:46 a.m.

Demo­crat­ic Rep. John Delaney and Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ron John­son agree that highly-skilled im­mig­rants are valu­able to the U.S. eco­nomy—they just dis­agree on what to do about it.

As Delaney put it: Demo­crats pri­or­it­ize find­ing a path to leg­al­iz­a­tion for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants while Re­pub­lic­ans want to first fo­cus on se­cur­ing the bor­der.

“We all want every Amer­ic­an to have the op­por­tun­ity to build a good life for them­selves and their fam­ily,” John­son said. “There’s wide dis­par­ity in terms of how to provide those types of op­por­tun­it­ies, how to achieve that prosper­ity.”

Delaney, a mem­ber of the Joint Eco­nom­ic Com­mit­tee, and John­son, chair­man of the Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity and Gov­ern­ment­al Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, on Tues­day key­noted a Na­tion­al Journ­al event, “Path­ways to Re­form: A Dis­cus­sion on High-Skilled Im­mig­ra­tion Policy,” un­der­writ­ten by Qual­comm.

“I agree with so much I heard,” said John­son, who spoke after Delaney, “but there’s a heavy dis­agree­ment in terms of what the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment really ought to do.”

Echo­ing the po­s­i­tions of their re­spect­ive parties, Delaney talked about com­pre­hens­ive re­form and John­son talked about piece­meal, step-by-step change.

Delaney said he thinks there will even­tu­ally be a House ver­sion of the 2013 im­mig­ra­tion bill passed in the Sen­ate; John­son said he would ar­gue the “com­pre­hens­ive bill … wasn’t go­ing to work.”

But at the end of the day, both want to re­tain tal­ent in the U.S.

“Let’s make sure the smartest minds stay here to grow the eco­nomy,” John­son said.

Delaney said ideo­lo­gic­al pro­gress on the eco­nom­ic ar­gu­ments would be an im­port­ant step to­wards achiev­ing more com­pre­hens­ive re­form, des­pite core dis­agree­ments between parties.

“One of the paths to en­han­cing eco­nom­ic growth is to em­brace a for­ward-look­ing im­mig­ra­tion strategy that al­lows more visas, more green cards, al­lows more en­tre­pren­eurs to work in our eco­nomy, cre­ate jobs, get that lever­age that we need, and al­low these com­pan­ies to com­pete glob­ally,” Delaney said. “So this is a growth is­sue. It’s a cur­rent is­sue and it’s a long term growth is­sue.”

Harry Holzer, a Geor­getown Uni­versity pro­fess­or, spoke on a pan­el of ex­perts fol­low­ing the key­note ad­dresses. He offered a more nu­anced view of im­mig­ra­tion re­form than either politi­cian.

“Right now, we need more in­nov­a­tion, we need more pat­ents gen­er­ated, we need more star­tups. There’s been a de­cline in busi­ness star­tups “¦ high-skill im­mig­ra­tion is good for that. High-skilled im­mig­rants cre­ate more star­tups,” he said. “I think the best thing we can do is open the per­man­ent path­ways to high-skill im­mig­ra­tion.”

On the oth­er hand, he said, there is a “mod­est neg­at­ive ef­fect on the wages of un­skilled nat­ive work­ers” and he agrees with John­son that “we want to raise the in­cent­ives for the leg­als, re­duce the in­cent­ives for the il­leg­als.”

And while he sup­ports a path to leg­al­iz­a­tion for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, at the end of the day it’s about the eco­nom­ics.

“Oth­er people talk about the val­ues, and I’ll let oth­er people talk about that,” Holzer said. “The eco­nom­ic ar­gu­ment to me is quite strong.”

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