President is right to hold out for more comprehensive immigration reform

Immigration reform is an innately thorny subject. It forces lawmakers to balance the interests of immigrants and employers interested in filling jobs with the fears of citizens who believe  immigrants deprive Americans of opportunities.

Efforts to reform immigration take an absurd turn when one side lobbies for greater admission of one small class of workers, but that we should crack down on all the rest.

For instance, Republicans back the STEM Jobs Act of 2012, which would set aside 55,000 visas for foreign-born students who come to the United States to earn a master’s or doctorate degree in areas of science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

The Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed the bill Friday, and the Senate is expected to take it up this month.

Last week, President Barack Obama voiced opposition to the bill, saying that the entire U.S. immigration regime needs to be reformed, not just the process for the highly skilled and highly educated. His stance riled the powerful Bay Area businesses — including Cisco, HP, IBM and Oracle — that support the bill, officially named HR 6429.

Technology firms and society as a whole have benefited greatly from special immigration visas. Silicon Valley is home to many people who came here on H-1B visas, which are set aside for “foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical experience in specialized fields, such as scientists, engineers, or computer programmers,” according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration ?Services.

But while tech companies have been able to draw international talent to build their companies, the visa program also shows the dysfunction of current immigration rules. Because thrown in among the scientists and engineers are another group of people who qualify for such visas — fashion models with “distinguished merit and ability.”

The STEM Act aims to keep people who graduate from college with high-tech degrees here in the U.S. to work, while H-1B visas aim to attract more people who already have such degrees. We agree that these are worthy goals that will help keep our tech companies ?competitive.

But other segments of the U.S. economy also need more immigrant workers, including agriculture, domestic work, labor and construction, and unskilled industry.

In fact, information released by the California Farm Bureau Federation on Tuesday indicated that many state farmers had difficulty finding employees to tend to and harvest crops in 2012. Attempts to hire U.S.-born workers, even during the midst of the recession, were mostly unsuccessful, the group said. So the federation is among those groups calling for broader immigration reform to help secure foreign workers.

American businesses clearly need workers at both ends of the skills spectrum, and likely many in between as well. One answer would be for lobbying and business groups to continue pushing for reforms that will simply benefit the type of workers they need. But this bifurcated system with opposing sides lobbying for workers with different skill sets is what Obama is rightly arguing against.

“The administration does not support narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the president’s long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform,” the Obama administration has said, while noting that it supports the goal of the STEM Act.

The president is calling for true immigration reform instead of continuing the patchwork of fixes that have lumped fashion models into the mix alongside skilled high-tech workers. Fixing the larger system will take serious work by lawmakers, but the president is right that piecemeal reforms are not the solution.

 

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