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Immigration System Needs Solutions to Protect High and Low-Skilled Workers

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start-up visaRepresentatives Lamar Smith (R-TX), Elton Gallegly (R-CA) and Steve King (R-IA) are in the driver’s seat on immigration policy for the GOP.  Their goal is mass deportation of 11 million undocumented workers and their families, which they couch in the friendlier-sounding “attrition through enforcement”.  As revealed in a series of hearings this year, their strategy is to pit one group of workers against another—U.S. workers against immigrants, native-born American workers against foreign-born American workers, African-American workers against Latinos, etc.  A recent hearing on the H-1B work-visa program also made it clear that while Smith, Gallegly, and King have never met an undocumented dishwasher or field hand they liked, they recognize the vital role of high-skilled immigration to the United States. 

Gallegly is already plotting legislation to make the E-verify employment authorization system mandatory.  It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to predict where this is headed: a crackdown on undocumented workers through nationwide E-verify and other measures, and a sweetener for the business community through changes to high-skilled immigration.           

Recently, the President said that he wants to deal with changes to high-skilled immigration, including the Kerry-Lugar Startup Visa bill, as part of comprehensive immigration reform.  That position garnered criticism from Vivek Wadhwa in TechCrunch:

I debated this with [United States Chief Technology Officer] Aneesh Chopra, at the Economist Innovation Summit in Berkeley, last week.

The day before that event, Aneesh had invited me to a meeting with the director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Alejandro Mayorkas, at Stanford Law School. We had had a very productive discussion with leading academics, lawyers, and entrepreneurs about how the government can interpret existing laws in a more favorable way for immigrant entrepreneurs. I was pleasantly surprised at how open Mayorkas was to criticism and at how he listened to the ideas presented to him. Both he and Chopra acknowledged the deficiencies of the current system and pledged to do all they could to have them fixed.

But Chopra dropped a bombshell at the Economist event. He said that the President would only support the Startup Visa in the context of “comprehensive immigration reform.”  What this means is that the legislation will be lumped in with toxic debates about illegal immigration and will be held hostage to other interests.

If Wadhwa is concerned about the “toxicity” of the immigration debate, he should direct his criticism at Lamar Smith, Steve King, and Elton Gallegly—along with Sens. Jeff Sessions, David Vitter, and others.  They are the ones who try to use every immigration issue—however important—as a vehicle for anti-immigration amendments and increased enforcement against undocumented workers.  Yes, our country needs immigrant entrepreneurs and their contributions.  But we also need busboys, farm workers, and landscapers.  Helping one group while hurting another is not acceptable.    

Our entire economy – and especially the economy of California (from Silicon Valley to the Central Valley and beyond) — is dependent on immigrants from across the spectrum.  With Smith, Gallegly, and King at the helm in the House, it’s clear that any bill expanding access to America for high-skilled workers will also be a magnet for punitive enforcement targeting low-skilled workers. 

It’s time for the adults in the Republican Party to step up, set aside the Smith-Gallegly-King agenda, and work with Democrats on real, comprehensive immigration reform.