How Republicans Should Handle Immigration Reform

Republicans cannot sit by and let Democrats portray them as anti-immigrant and racially motivated on the immigration issue.


SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, MEXICO--I'm in Mexico this week, not far from the huge statue of Christ high atop a mountain that marks the geographic center of the country. We're nowhere near all the drug-related border violence, in the high central desert, as my kids take immersion Spanish classes. There's a bus depot here that will make runs to towns as far away as Louisville, Kentucky, and seeing it reminded me of the divisive immigration issue back home.

The Obama administration wants to enact comprehensive immigration reform, but it also seems to want to paint Republicans as anti-immigrant and specifically, anti-Hispanic. In the midst of all the rhetoric about the Arizona lawsuit, racial profiling and other inflammatory issues, Republicans should focus on one aspect of immigration policy that plays to their strengths: encouraging more highly-educated foreign-born entrepreneurs to immigrate to the United States in order to fuel job creation. The New York Times is reporting today that the trade imbalance has widened to $42 billion, and unemployment is stuck at nearly 10 percent nationwide. Most Americans are concerned about immigration, but many more of them are worried about unemployment. Taking the lid off immigration limits for highly-educated foreign-born workers can help spur badly needed job growth and reduce the trade imbalance by increasing exports. Republicans should keep "jobs, jobs, jobs" front and center when they talk about immigration, and this is a way to do that.

[Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on immigration.]

Unemployment is stuck at nearly 10 percent nationwide these days and job creation seems to have nearly stopped, but Chris Farrell writes in Bloomberg BusinessWeek that over the last 20 years, U.S. multinational corporations have contributed a majority of the gains in productivity during good times, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Farrell cites some great statistics about the tremendous number of high-tech start-ups led by highly educated immigrants that have created many jobs for Americans. (Let's leave aside the question of why the American higher education system is not producing more of our own inventors, engineers and high-tech experts, just as we cannot seem to find enough Americans to fill jobs involving manual labor or farm work. That's a blog for another day.) 

In addition, "foreign nationals living in the U.S. were named as inventors or co-inventors in 24 percent of all international patent applications filed in the U.S. in 2006. That's up from 7 percent in 1998. The influx of highly-skilled workers from India, Asia, Latin America, and other corners of the world is also a boon to U.S. exports." He concludes:

... America's historic record, blue-chip economic research, and well-established business experience all suggest the payoff from making it vastly easier for immigrants—especially educated immigrants—to stay permanently in the U.S. will be enormous. Tear down the walls that place obstacles to immigrants attending American universities and set up procedures for rapidly granting educated workers permanent resident visas.

Create a mechanism for a permanent "entrepreneurial" visa for those immigrants with a hunger to create a business and a plan for a job-generating startup. Instead of piling on more obstacles to prevent abuses of the current temporary H-1B visa system, why not streamline the whole process and eliminate many of the restrictions that make it difficult for workers to travel, change jobs, or earn a promotion?

Republicans can sit by and let Democrats portray them as anti-immigrant and racially motivated on the immigration issue, or they can emphasis pro-growth, pro-immigrant policies that bring more engineers, scientists, and high-tech computer experts to the United States to reinvigorate our economy. It's a win-win policy for everybody: Republicans, immigrants, and Americans looking to get back to work. Let Democrats spiral down into divisive language and ugly politics; Republicans should rise above and talk in clear, balanced terms about securing the border and being generous to those who are willing to play by the rules. 

In a year when the Republican Party is hoping for big wins by candidates such as Marco Rubio in Florida and Susana Martinez in New Mexico, they'd be wise to remind voters that after all, we are a nation of immigrants. And many of those immigrants are conservative themselves.