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What’s behind the clamoring for skilled immigration? Cheap labor

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The steady background caterwauling by corporate and academic elitists about the perils of insufficient skilled immigration to the United States has reached a crescendo in recent months. Nothing really new to see here — these folks have been warning that the sky is about to fall for decades, through periods of boom and recession, and high unemployment and low unemployment. 

A recent open letter to President Trump and congressional leaders, signed the deans of some 50 university business programs, warns in the direst of terms of the precarious status of our economic firmament. “We are … urgently concerned. We do not believe the U.S. has the high-skilled talent it needs, nor does it have the capacity to train enough people with those skills. Without a substantial change in our approach, this deficit of skills in key fields will hinder economic growth,” they wrote.

Leaving aside the possibility that there may be significant daylight between what they “believe” and what actually is, and their own failure to create the capacity to train enough people with needed skills (anticipating this stuff and preparing for it is kind of their job), their proposed solutions lack seriousness. Assuming the problems they identify are real ones, the remedies they propose amounts to nothing more than a Band-Aid.

Foremost, they want a loosening of Trump administration rules aimed at restoring the H-1B visa program to its original intent of providing American business and academia with access to people with exceptional skills that are not easily replicated. After the visa was created in 1990, it quickly morphed from a program that allowed American businesses to access rare talent to one that allows businesses to bypass American workers in favor of cheaper foreign workers. According to a Pew Research report, “By far the most common H-1B occupation that does not require a bachelor’s degree is ‘computer systems analyst,’ with 94 percent of such jobs requiring less than a bachelor’s degree.”

Their basic premise, however, is a valid one. The United States should have immigration policies that prioritize the admission of skilled and talented people whose presence here will promote identifiable economic and other interests. But expanding the much-abused H-1B program (which undermines American workers), or promoting flawed legislation that unduly preferences workers from just two countries, is not the way to go about it.

If our current immigration system is admitting about a million new immigrants a year, and America’s vital industries cannot find “the high-skilled talent it needs” from that large pool, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the system as it exists. Even a well-regulated H-1B program is just an add-on to a broken system. What is needed is a top to bottom overhaul of an immigration system that is better suited to the 19th century than to the 21st. 

The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act would reprioritize our legal immigration to favor admission of people with needed skills. Our current family chain migration system, adopted in 1965, clearly isn’t meeting the demands of our economy, as the business school deans point out in their letter. Ironically, not only hasn’t academia and business gotten behind this legislation, they have taken an active role in ensuring that it never sees the light of day.

The people who might be admitted under the RAISE Act would far more likely come with the skills American businesses need and want. But, from the perspective of business, there is a huge drawback. Skilled immigrants with green cards (and the ability to become citizens within five years) would have the same job mobility and bargaining power as American workers. 

Eschewing the RAISE Act, while demanding large increases in H-1B visas, is an indication that what these interests really want are workers who can compete directly with American workers, and workers who are more or less tethered to the companies that sponsor them. Put another way, what they want is to maintain the failed status quo, while using their considerable political clout to bring in guest workers they want.

As for the business school deans, perhaps they and the U.S. economy would be better served if they focused their attention on expanding their capacity to prepare American workers with needed skills, instead of doing the bidding of their corporate donors.

The sky may not be falling, but it sure wouldn’t hurt to have a rational immigration policy and a higher education system that anticipates the needs of our rapidly evolving economy.

Ira Mehlman is the media director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which examines immigration trends and advocates for policy changes.

Tags Donald Trump H-1B visa Immigration Migrant worker Pew

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