The Real Cost of Obama’s Moribund Immigration Policy

The Real Cost of Obama’s Moribund Immigration Policy

REUTERS/Keith Bedford

As he heads into 2013, and a brand new term, President Obama is clearly feeling his oats. Pumped up by his reelection, the president has adopted a “my way or the highway” approach – and not just on taxes. He also wants immigration reform – but only on his terms. 

After taking a pounding from Hispanics in the election, Republicans are trying to regain a foothold on fixing our broken immigrant program. President Obama is having none of it. He is happy to let the GOP stew in their “self-deporting” juice and allow Dems to keep a firm grip on a growing sector of the voting population. He has hinted that broad-scale reform of our sloppy immigration program will be the centerpiece of his next term. Allowing the GOP to chip away at another legacy accomplishment is not acceptable – even if it would mean progress on a contentious issue.

On November 30, House Republicans passed a bill that would allow foreigners graduating from US universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the country – a proposal that has broad bipartisan and popular support. Democrats in the Senate had negotiated changes in the law to secure their backing, and were set to achieve a rare bipartisan consensus. According to a participant in the discussions, just as the bill was heading for a vote in the House, the president blocked the deal.

The White House issued a statement on November 28 slamming the bill, which would have created 55,000 visas for science, technology, engineering and math grads, because it did away with controversial “diversity visas.” A few days later, Senator Harry Reid’s office confirmed that he will not be bringing the bill up for consideration. President Obama wants “comprehensive immigration reform,” the administration statement said. Nothing less will do.

The president’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology says we need one million more STEM graduates to fill the jobs of tomorrow. In the past, Mr. Obama has demonstrated his commitment to building our science and technology capabilities by lengthening a temporary training program that keeps foreign graduates in the country, by encouraging more STEM teachers, and by promoting industry “talent academies” – he’s even on record wanting to change our self-defeating visa system that sends STEM students packing.

Instead of allowing the GOP to step back from their harsh anti-immigrant positions, he chose another year in which 30 percent of our taxpayer-supported students majoring in engineering, math and other needed disciplines will be sent home to set up shop and compete with us -- all in the name of protecting diversity visas.

That visa program that the GOP bill eliminates was created in 1990 to “foster new, more varied immigration from other parts of the world,” according to the Congressional Research Service. It does this by randomly allocating 55,000 visas each year to an applicant pool of more than 15 million. (So randomly that last year a computer glitch botched the selection; families were notified they had won one of earth’s most valuable credentials, only to be tossed overboard when embarrassed officials noticed the error.)

Those admitted are supposed to have the equivalent of a high school degree or some similar work credential – a demand often tough to verify.  As Senator Orrin Hatch described the program last year, “Unlike other immigrant visa categories, the Diversity Visa allows people to immigrate to the United States without having any connection to the country…family, employment, or even an economic tie…”  Last year the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement looked into terminating the Diversity Program.

A spokesman for the committee, who would only speak on background, says the program has become a magnet for fraud and poses a security risk. The State Department’s list of eligible countries for 2014 includes Cuba, Iran and North Korea; every year we admit applicants from such countries. 

Instead of handing out green cards to people with dubious credentials, admitting highly educated foreigners who have needed skills would seem a no-brainer.  Studies have shown that each foreign-born student who earns an advanced STEM degree creates on average almost three US jobs. Because taxpayers pay heavily to underwrite those degrees, it makes no sense to make that investment and not reap any reward, especially when rivals like Canada and Australia are aggressively recruiting our graduates.

How significant are these petroleum engineers and software designers? The National Science Foundation reports that about half of those receiving PhDs in computer science are from other countries.  In 2011, foreign-born innovators accounted for some 76 percent of the patents received by the top 10 patent-producing US universities (Stanford, Cornell, MIT, Caltech, etc.). During the dot com boom between 1995 and 2005, immigrants participated in founding one quarter of all tech start-ups. More than 40 percent of students receiving advanced degrees in STEM disciplines are foreign born. We need to keep those future job creators.

Americans are tired of political gamesmanship. Where there is consensus between our fractious political parties, the president should not stand in the way of progress.