Diana Furchtgott-Roth: Democrats' retreat from immigration delays reform

It's bad news for America that President Obama has abandoned the immigration reform that he promised on the campaign trail. America's economy relies on immigrant talent, both high-skilled in research, finance and innovation, and low-skilled in hotels, restaurants and farms.

These days, getting a legal visa takes years, thousands of dollars in legal fees and miles of bureaucratic red tape. Millions of workers are in America without legal papers, many married to citizens or permanent residents, and with American children.

When a system is broken, passions run high. Arizona passes state laws to enforce existing federal immigration law — and is criticized by the president and Congress for doing so.

Why don't Democrats change the immigration laws if they don't like them? After all, they control both chambers of Congress and the White House.

Now, some Republicans are calling for denying citizenship to children of illegal immigrants by changing or reinterpreting the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to “all persons born in the United States.”

This would be a terrible idea. America is built on immigrants, and needs more of them both for high- and low-skilled jobs. In addition, immigrants have more children than native-born Americans, and America needs children to pay the Social Security benefits of aging workers.

Conferring citizenship on babies born in America is a long-standing practice, and our openness toward immigrants has contributed toward our success. Any cursory glance at the list of American Nobel Prize winners in the sciences shows how much we owe to the immigrant community.

Immigrants have different skills and job preferences from native-born Americans, and so make American workers more productive. Many Americans have a high school diploma and some college education, but few adults are without a high school diploma or have Ph.D.s in math and science.

In contrast, immigrants are 15.5 percent of the labor force, yet represent 48 percent of the labor force without a high school diploma, 31 percent of all doctorates and 42 percent of doctorates working in science, math and engineering. Because they have a smaller share of high school diplomas and bachelor's degrees, they don't compete directly with most native-born workers.

Immigrants help our economy operate more effectively and increase hiring of native-born Americans. If a community pool can be maintained for $10 an hour rather than $20 an hour, more pools will be built, employing native-born Americans as well as foreign workers in the construction and operating process.

And if a bright Indian scientist working for an American company invents a new computer chip, native-born Americans will be employed in the development and marketing of products using that chip.

Congress needs to overhaul immigration law and create an expanded guest worker program with a path to citizenship.

Innovators who want to come and start a business should be welcomed with visas, green cards and citizenship. If we can't create jobs here, we could import them through new ideas.

We need to eliminate the gray market that has resulted in check-cashing services that cost between 2.5 percent and 10 percent of the check's proceeds. Immigrants use these services, rather than free bank accounts, to avoid taxes and to avoid being caught.

With more legal visas, payments for health care through insurance could be collected more easily. Foreigners who want to work here could pay the government for these permits, and funds from the permits could be used to buy health insurance, education and biometric identification cards for legal workers.

In the 2008 electoral campaigns, President Obama and the Democrats promised to reform immigration — and criticized Republicans for failing to do so. If Democrats meant what they said, this is their chance to do better.

Examiner Columnist Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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