Build bridges, walls and gates to fix US immigration

Build bridges, walls and gates to fix US immigration
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In American political discourse, there isn’t a more polarizing topic than immigration policy. A discussion on the topic never leads to solutions, but to more and more discussion and bitter arguments. One side calls the other racist, and the other anti-American. The discussion does not move beyond that impasse. 

There is truth to both accusations. Politicians have resorted to hyperbole and vitriol over constructive reform. This state of affairs will halt progress on Biden’s “Build Back Better” initiative, addressing America’s declining population rates and on improving the quality of lives of many immigrants. In order to prevent America’s decline, Biden should build proverbial bridges, walls and gates in the immigration system.  

To build physical and digital infrastructure for the 21st Century, the U.S. needs the world’s best engineers, architects and urban planners. A majority of U.S. professional science, technology, engineering or math degrees go to foreigners and many are educated through America’s Ivy Leagues. Biden wants America to have the world’s best infrastructure, to compete with China on artificial intelligence (AI) and to revive its high tech manufacturing capabilities. With more than 79 percent of computer science engineers in America’s universities being foreigners, and more than half of students in STEM graduate departments being international students, America’s ambitions and goals are inextricably tied to its ability to retain these brilliant minds. At present, America is failing miserably at it. 

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There are primarily two visa options for high skilled immigrants to work and stay in America — H-1B and L-1 visas, and the limited application window for them opens in April every year. These two visa categories select roughly 65,000 (plus an additional 20,000 through an advanced degree exception) candidates each year from an applicant pool of close to 200,000. Of the 65,000, more than 40 percent of visas granted are for outsourced tech jobs going to American and Indian technology firms, according to a New York Times report. These firms flood the applicant pool with their applications and make it virtually impossible for smaller firms to hire international talent. If a smaller firm wanted to hire an architect or an AI expert or researcher for its lab, it would have to wait a couple of years to get their candidate’s application reviewed, let alone selected. 

If one wanted to migrate legally to the United States, they’d have to use, as conservatives would call it, “chain migration”— being sponsored by a family member who is a U.S. citizen — take up a role that is being outsourced and be chosen through a lottery, or invest over a million dollars in a depressed community to gain a permanent residency over the course of five to 10 years. 

While this might come as a shock to some, the legal immigration system has long been broken in America. A few presidents have acknowledged the problem and tried to reform this system, starting with Obama and then Trump who proposed a merit based immigration system. For all of Trump’s incendiary language on immigration, his merit based immigration policy that proposed a points based system could just be the need of the hour. As a complimentary measure to the hard bargained infrastructure bill in Congress, the Biden administration should now turn its efforts toward a bill on merit based immigration that acts a bridge to America for the brightest minds of the world and retains their talent here.   

Nevertheless, bridges should not guarantee entry to each and every individual who checks the boxes for skills and experiences. It is highly impractical to house everyone who meets a skills criteria. To act as the proverbial wall, the U.S. should include a values based methodology to filter and invite the best, brightest and those with closely aligned values that represent America.  

For example, the U.S. should welcome protestors in Hong Kong waving the American flag over those supporting the Chinese regime; Afghans who fought hard for democracy and for their rights over those supporting the Taliban in the region and democratic activists from Cuba, Iran and Venezuela who have plastered their walls with the American flag and the Statue of Liberty over those who protested in front of American consulates, chanting, “death to America” or burning the American flag.  

And then, there is the issue with undocumented immigrants, disproportionately from Mexico and Central America. The 11 million and odd undocumented immigrants may lower the cost of production for multinational conglomerates. However, they depress the wages of American workers and are risking their own lives with no protections. Undocumented immigrants are exploited by the farming and food processing industries and women and children bear the brunt the most as victims of rape and sexual assault. 

The logjam in immigration reform has benefited both Democrat and Republican donors — Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple — also known by the acronym, GAFA — and Koch Foods are giving them no incentive to engage in constructive reform. The Biden administration has diverged from establishment policies and extended several of his predecessor’s populist policies. It should do the same with immigration by building proverbial gates. 

Democrats and Republicans trade barbs and engage in virtue signaling. If Democrats are truly the more humane of the two, they would support pro-democracy protestors around the globe and oppose the employment of undocumented immigrants that, in reality, does more harm to all involved than good. Similarly, if Republicans were to walk their talk on patriotism, they should welcome high-skilled immigrants whose values are closely aligned with that of America’s, regardless of their ethnic background.  

If these bridges, walls and gates are incorporated into the immigration system, America of the future can be a diverse multicultural melting pot with immigrants who’d be a testament to the enduring American dream. 

Akhil Ramesh is a non-resident Vasey fellow at the Pacific Forum. He has worked with risk consulting firms, think tanks and in the blockchain industry in the United States, India and in the Philippines. His analysis has been published in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, Asia Times and the Jerusalem Post. Follow him on Twitter: @akhil_oldsoul

Editor's note: This piece was corrected to revise the name Koch Foods.