In U.S. political debates, there is a tendency to separate economic issues, like taxes, spending and regulation, from social issues, like abortion rights, gay rights and gun rights. Immigration, as a general rule, tends to fall in this latter bucket, as an issue that comes up mainly because it matters to Latino and Asian voters and a handful of vocal immigration restrictionists.
There is a decent case that immigration should really be understood as an economic issue – indeed, as the most important economic issue facing U.S. policymakers. That is part of why Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has attracted so much attention for his recent call for comprehensive immigration reform, a call echoed by voices across the political spectrum, including President Barack Obama’s. But Rubio’s plan has been met with considerable resistance, in large part because debates over immigration policy also have a moral dimension. Understanding it is key to breaking out of our immigration impasse.
But first, it is important to understand why the immigration issue is gaining momentum. Back in 2011, J.P. Morgan released a report that found that U.S. households own $70 trillion in physical and financial assets. This same report found that America’s stock of human capital, i.e., the collective education and experience of all U.S. workers, amounted to $700 trillion. Rather than pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into new roads, bridges and housing units, the surest and cheapest strategy for increasing our collective wealth is to import talented workers. Even as the United States is mired in a sluggish semi-recovery, vast numbers of skilled English-speaking foreigners are eager to settle in, to start businesses and buy homes. These keen would-be immigrants represent low-hanging economic fruit, a fact that is well understood in Silicon Valley and Wall Street, where high-wattage immigrants have made an outsized contribution.
Among policymakers, there is a growing consensus that the United States should welcome more skilled workers. During the last presidential campaign, Mitt Romney called for granting work visas to foreign students who completed science, technology and engineering degrees at U.S. universities. The problem, however, is that most immigrant advocates don’t want to separate out the effort to increase skilled immigration from the far more contentious cause of giving America’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants, most of whom have modest skills, a “path to citizenship.” President Obama, in keeping with influential immigrant advocacy groups like America’s Voice, has insisted that the United States should only welcome more skilled workers as part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that also addresses the legal status of the unauthorized.
And so Rubio, who represents a state that has long been a gateway for immigrants, has called for reform that would increase the number of visas for skilled workers, create a guest-worker program aimed at seasonal farm workers, require all employers to check the legal status of potential employees against a federal E-Verify database, and, most controversially, offer law-abiding unauthorized immigrants a path to citizenship. This path wouldn’t be an easy one, as it would require such immigrants to pay back taxes and a fine, and demonstrate some degree of English language proficiency. That said, Rubio’s approach is broadly in line with that advanced by the Obama administration, and indeed by President George W. Bush’s immigration reform effort from 2007.