Immigration is inherent to the American identity. All of us could share a story of a grandparent, a spouse, a neighbor or a friend who came to this country seeking new opportunities and who has enriched our community as a result. Our nation has thrived because of the contributions of immigrants and their belief that success is determined by ambition, ability and drive. Legal and systematic immigration plays a critical role in our national economy, but a failing system that turns away top talent underscores the urgent need for reform.
As a border community, San Diego is faced with the unique challenge of working toward a well-trained and plentiful workforce while balancing the need for a safe and efficient border. Prioritizing border infrastructure improvements and funding land ports of entry is an essential part of enhancing our national and regional economy. Better infrastructure means improved economic prosperity of our country, which is one of the most important factors to our long-term security and reducing unauthorized immigration.
Agriculture is a vital part of our region’s heritage and adds more than $5 billion to the county’s economy each year. Many of the farms are small and family owned, and they depend on seasonal labor, primarily immigrants, to help with each new crop. The same is true throughout America. If we want to remain an agricultural leader, we must recognize that temporary workers, and the visas that allow them to work here legally, are a permanent need. Otherwise, this work, which when done within our borders creates jobs for American citizens, faces the prospect of outsourcing.
San Diego also is like a southern Silicon Valley. Telecom giants, innovative startups and great universities all call the city home and all rely on high-skilled, foreign-born workers with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees. Often these students are educated at American universities, which attract the best and brightest students from around the world. Our immigration system should encourage these students to legally stay in the U.S. after college to start businesses, create jobs and add to our growing technology sector. As President Obama has stated, 25 percent of high-tech startups are founded by immigrants. We should do everything possible to foster that spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation – and keep innovative job creators working in places like California.
Despite its flaws, our current immigration policy is still the most generous in the world and welcomes more people each year than any other country. However, the current structure cannot keep up with demand. In 2011, more than 1 million people became green-card holders, bringing the number of legal permanent residents to an estimated 13.3 million. Many of these green-card allocations, however, are not distributed in ways that help our economy or unify the immediate family members of key immigrant contributors.
Our global competitors, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, prioritize the majority of their visas based on professional skills and education, but only 12 percent of U.S. visas are prioritized that way. H-1B visas for high-skilled workers are extremely sought after but face strict caps that limit their availability. Last year, we reached the H-1B cap in just 5 days. Bills like H.R. 2131, The SKILLS Visa Act, will increase the number of H-1B visas, repeal the per-country cap, and increase the number of green cards for foreign students with graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math from U.S. universities. The SKILLS Visa Act also creates an entrepreneurship visa for those who open small businesses and hire Americans, a long overdue update that would bring our immigration system into the 21st century. This proposed reform is only one piece of the puzzle.
Any comprehensive immigration reform has to make sense for the U.S. economy, and that means making sure our system prioritizes workers who can fill or create much needed jobs. Some of our country’s biggest industries are driven by immigrants, and we should do everything we can to facilitate growth and innovation in those sectors so that we stay globally competitive. Immigration has always been part of our national framework, and a smart, sustainable immigration policy would be a win-win for U.S. citizens and foreign-born Americans alike.
This week, representatives from the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce will be visiting members of the San Diego congressional delegation, along with other congressional leaders, regarding immigration. We believe immigration reform should be bipartisan and will use this week’s dialogue to try and build momentum for the reform agenda before Congress.
Issa has represented California’s 49th Congressional District since 2001. He is chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and sits on the Judiciary Committee. Sanders served as mayor of San Diego from 2006-2012 and is president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.