OPINION: Immigration debate should focus on jobs, not fences

Today, more than three years after our country entered its deepest recession in decades, the single most powerful (and cost-free) step that the federal government could take to spur job growth – fixing our broken immigration system – is a casualty of partisan gridlock. 

A new study by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that more than 40 percent of companies on the 2010 Fortune 500 list were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. Why?  Because immigrants come here to work – and their drive and entrepreneurship have helped build the United States into the world’s largest and most innovative economy.  Immigration reform would spur more new business and job growth in a broad range of industries that are critical to our recovery – and some of those businesses would become major U.S. employers and Fortune 500 companies.  

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Other countries recognize how critical immigrants are to economic growth and have implemented policies that open their doors to them.  But in the U.S., our immigration laws are shutting out too many immigrants that our economy needs.  If this continues, the consequences for our future will be dire.  We cannot remain the world’s economic superpower while turning away the world’s most talented and hardest-working people.

Leaders in both parties recognize that the current system is a drag on our economy. It was encouraging to see President Obama say recently that increasing opportunities for immigrants to come here is a top priority. And likewise, it was encouraging to see House Republicans put forward a “Plan for American Job Creators” that includes more visas for the workers we need.  Despite the conventional wisdom, I believe that that there is a real opportunity for a bipartisan breakthrough on immigration reform, if the two parties approach the issue from a straightforward economic perspective.

By focusing on areas of economic agreement rather than political disagreement, Congress could take five steps that would have a profoundly positive impact on our economy.

First, we must stop providing a first-rate education in science and technology to foreign students and then forcing them to leave. The two parties should be able to agree on a policy that allows any university graduate with an advanced degree in an essential field to obtain a green card. We must allow these students to stay here and be part of our future or we will watch our future disappear with them. 

Second, we must stop telling foreign entrepreneurs to build their companies in other countries. Rather than capitalize on our assets by encouraging innovators to come here and stay, we reject immigrant entrepreneurs. A foreign entrepreneur with backing from American investors should be given a temporary visa to start a company in America, and if successful in creating American jobs, should be given a path to permanent status. 

Third, we must stop telling American companies that they cannot hire the high-skilled workers they need. Right now, the caps on H-1B visas and employment-based green cards are much too low, and caps on green cards are set by country. Iceland gets the same number of visas as India. We should end these arbitrary limits and end the cap on the high-skill H-1B visas. Let the market decide. It’s basic free-market economics – and both parties ought to be able to get behind it.

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Fourth, we must ensure that major industries that rely on workers just starting up the economic ladder, such as agriculture and tourism, have access to foreign workers when they cannot fill the jobs with American workers. Currently, farmers have to go through multiple levels of approvals to do basic hiring, and in Georgia, where they have cracked down on illegal farm workers, farm owners are experiencing severe labor shortages. That’s driving up their costs and leaving crops unharvested. At a time when food prices are rising, this is the last thing American consumers – and farmers – need.

Fifth, and finally, we must begin allocating more green cards based on economic needs. Right now, only about 15 percent of all green cards go to employees and their dependents, while the rest go largely to immigrants’ families and relatives. In Canada, those numbers are reversed. Even as we continue our legacy as a place of refuge and reunion, we must open our doors more widely to the talented and hardworking people who can make critical contributions to our economic growth and prosperity. That means raising green card limits based on our economic needs.

In the coming weeks, Congress is expected to consider the Dream Act and E-Verify. But pass or fail, the time has come to refocus the immigration debate around the most pressing issue facing the country: creating jobs. The conversation here in Washington on immigration must be about more than fences and fingerprints; it must be about what kind of country we want America to be and whether we want to remain the world’s economic superpower.

Bloomberg is the mayor of New York City.