The third presidential debate, concerned mainly with foreign policy, was frustrating for many commentators because it gave them little to chew on. What’s to debate when there’s so much agreement — or the semblance of it, at least?
Our frustration is quite the opposite: There is genuine agreement between Democrats and Republicans on some issues and yet that consensus fails to drive action. We see this playing out especially on immigration.
The larger immigration picture certainly remains contentious, and unavoidably so. How to deal with 12 million illegal immigrants, most of them productive and otherwise law-abiding citizens of long standing? How to make the border more secure and how much weight to give that imperfectly attainable goal?
Yet in the treatment of highly skilled workers a strong consensus exists that a more liberal policy is crucial for U.S. economic prospects. President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney agree. Almost everyone who has given the matter a moment of intelligent thought agrees. Yet nothing happens.
It would be hard to exaggerate the lunacy of the United States’s rules on skilled immigrants. We know of no other advanced economy that skews its policies so severely against the workers in greatest demand. Most countries see themselves as competing to attract that kind of immigrant, recognizing that human capital is an important driver of economic success.
The U.S. has more to worry about than most. Its schools are underperforming and its students have lost ground in comparison with other countries. The educational quality of the U.S. labor force, after decades of rapid improvement, has begun to stagnate.
Serious efforts to improve schools and develop a better-trained labor force are under way but it could be years before we know the results or see their effect on the economy. Meanwhile, strategic industries, especially in information and communication technology, complain of skills shortages and are forced to meet them by moving research and production abroad.
The U.S. compounds the idiocy of its cramped skilled- immigrant quotas with impressive thoroughness. For instance, by law it allocates applications among countries according to a half-baked notion of diversity, rather than according to its own economic needs. Many emigrants from India excel in engineering and other technical skills that American companies covet. Yet India’s quota, small in relation to its pool of outstanding applicants, artificially restricts their numbers.
The U.S. attracts the best students from all over the world to its universities and then deports them soon after they have received degrees. If an immigrant is lucky enough to obtain an H1-B visa — the prized document sought by most foreign graduates arriving to work for a U.S. employer — it can take years to win permanent residency.
In the meantime, the immigrant is forbidden to change employers and must become very acquainted with the legal system. Spouses, for the most part, aren’t allowed to work. And the Internal Revenue Service has devised special tortures for immigrants who retain financial connections with their home countries, in effect regarding them as tax evaders unless they can prove otherwise. The authorities have thought of everything.
Since its founding, the U.S. has been a magnet for the most talented, ambitious and hard-working people in the world. This has always been the nation’s greatest strength. Highly skilled workers have never been more valuable than they are today, and yet the U.S., in every way it can think of, now tells those would-be Americans to get lost. They are beginning to get the message.
It is both remarkable and disgraceful that Congress understands the problem. It hears of little else from companies, including General Electric, Intel and Microsoft, and yet can’t seem to separate the issue of highly skilled immigrants from the wider and genuinely difficult aspects of immigration policy.
Cold political calculations by both parties are holding back reform. House Republicans arranged a floor vote last month on a measure that would have offered more residency visas to immigrants with advanced science, technology, engineering and math degrees, but set it up to fail by reducing the number of visas overall.
For their part, Democrats think it best to hold the skilled-immigration rules hostage until they can get a more comprehensive agreement (which Republicans tend to resist). We favor comprehensive reform, too, but not if the result is total paralysis, with intolerable costs to the economy.
Making progress where agreement is slender or nonexistent is hard enough, as Congress has proved. Failing to make progress where agreement exists — on a policy issue of surpassing importance — is unforgivable.