Republicans Must Outflank Democrats On Immigration Reform

Immigration is a problem longing for a fix. Unfortunately, it has been accorded leper status in Washington. Too broken to leave alone but too politically perilous to touch with a ten-foot pole. One need look no further than Arizona to realize the incendiary nature of attempting to come up with an immigration solution. Where there is much to lose, there is also much to gain. That is why Republicans must take the initiative, outflank their political opponents, and craft an immigration reform plan that not only preserves conservative values but potentially captures a new bloc of conservative voters.

Republicans have long been labeled as xenophobes when it comes to immigration. It is largely the result of a debate that has been couched in between two equally unattractive views. The word “immigrant” at its worst conjures up images of people who are stealing American jobs and living off our social welfare system without paying a dime in taxes to support it. At its best, they are unskilled laborers, doing the jobs Americans won’t do while living off our social welfare system without paying a dime in taxes to support it. Either way, not exactly a rosy picture. With this mindset, Republicans are doomed to forever fight an uphill battle when it comes to standing behind a viable, working option for immigration reform.

Sadly, without such reform Republicans will be doomed to wander the political wilderness. The fact is Hispanics will be a majority in this country by as soon as 2050. To remain a viable political party you will eventually have to capture this growing voting pool. Fortunately, and many Republicans don’t understand this, Hispanic-Americans tend to be conservative. In 2006 pollster David Winston asked registered voters to rate themselves on a 1 to 9 scale from very liberal to very conservative. Winston found that Hispanic Americans viewed themselves were more conservative than the rest of an already center-right country.

They are a natural source of votes but we’ve got to wise up to capture them.

This is where I’m going to lose some of you. But let me go ahead and say, wising up does not equal selling out. I understand that a party is about more than politics, it is about principle. Fortunately, reforming our stance on immigration isn’t just good politics, it meshes perfectly with conservative principles. But, it will require a change in mindset.

We’ve all heard the melting pot argument. That the United States is a nation of immigrants, melting together to form the essential fabric that binds us to this nation. All true, but very blah. Even with this argument immigration bas become a convoluted issue, existing as the enormous elephant in the room. Grasping the “melting pot” argument relies on a sense of history and fairness – concepts that are intangible and don’t really come with any personal benefits. Today, with unemployment staying stubbornly high and deficits clouding our fiscal future, it is a much easier to argue that illegal immigrants are taking our jobs and eating up our taxes. So what can we do to reframe the debate?

Republicans should put forward an immigration reform package that promises to increase jobs, lower the number of unskilled immigrants, and boosts the number of taxpayers. Sounds conservative. Now, what if I told you it could be done in a way palatable to Hispanic voters.

The first step is to change the make-up of our immigrant population. “Unskilled” and “immigrant” are too often viewed as inseparable. It needn’t be this way. After all you wouldn’t view Albert Einstein this way. But imagine how many fewer jobs America would have without people like these:

  • Jerry Yang – Taiwanese founder of Yahoo
  • Sergey Brin – Russian founder of Google
  • Andrew Grove – Hungarian founder of Intel
  • Andrew Carnegie – Scottish business mogul
  • Levi Strauss – German inventor of blue Jeans
  • John Kluge – German owner of Metromedia – one of largest privately held companies in the US

Immigrants success extends much deeper. A study by Harvard researcher Vivek Wawha found that “one in four engineering and technology companies founded between 1995 and 2005 had an immigrant founder. We found that these companies employed 450,000 workers and generated $52 billion in revenue in 2006.” Moreover, foreign nationals residing in the United States represented 25.6 percent of all patent applications. In Silicon Valley, one of the primary entrepreneurial centers in the United States, 52 percent of tech and engineering companies were founded by an immigrant.

Immigrants do not have to be the job takers. They can be the job creators. But first we have to create an immigration policy capable of attracting and harnessing their talents. One way to do that would be to change the H-1B visa system. The visa, which is provided for immigrants that want to work in the U.S., has helped draw the top talent in the international work force. Unfortunately, as Darrel West argues in the Wall Street Journal ,

“[O]nly 15% of our annual visas are now set aside for employment purposes. Of these, some go to seasonal agricultural workers, while a small number of H-1B visas (65,000) are reserved for “specialty occupations” such as scientists, engineers, and technological experts.”

65,000. That’s it. Applications for this type of visa are normally gone within the first two days of the application period. In other words, while the H-1B visa should be luring the best and the brightest international talent, we are shutting off the tap. The Cato Institute argues that such a low cap “is hampering output, especially in high-technology sectors, and forcing companies to consider moving production offshore.” The expansion should not be limited to H-1Bs. Other skilled worker visas such as the L-1, which allows foreign workers to relocate to a multi-national corporation’s US office, and O-1, which allows aliens with “extraordinary abilities” in a particular field, should also be emphasized and revised.

Given the inherent power of these visas to actually create jobs why has the government been so slow to change it? Partially because of the misperception of so many voters who believe that increasing quotas will take away jobs from Americans. This logic doesn’t have a basis in fact. As Cato explains:

“Fears that H-1B workers cause unemployment and depress wages are unfounded. H-1B workers create jobs for Americans by enabling the creation of new products and spurring innovation. High-tech industry executives estimate that a new H-1B engineer will typically create demand for an additional 3-5 American workers.

This is the chance for Republicans to take the lead on immigration. Republicans have long been thought to have lost the debate – and have the lack of minority support to prove it.  The key to winning the support and turning the debate around is to focus on immigrants as realistic and viable solution to the economic trouble. Immigration reform could be the jobs bill we’ve all been waiting for and with a price-tag much cheaper than the so-called stimulus.

by Brandon Greife, Political Director of the College Republican National Committee