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U.S. Immigration Policies Need a Face Lift

Increased immigration of high-qualified labor could be an answer to most of our short- to medium-term national economic problems. Many legislators understand this, and the U.S. Congress has already supported this general policy through the EB-5 program, which ties green cards to investment in American jobs.

But the EB-5 program was created over 20 years ago, in 1990. Since then, we have been at a standstill. The most recent failed attempt at additional visa slots for high-powered foreigners, the bipartisan Kerry-Lugar Startup Visa Act, still hasn’t made it out of the committee chamber. And that is because the cynical question of “how to filter for the right immigrants” is devilishly hard to answer broadly without becoming politically vulnerable to the nativist fringe of voters.

The EB-5 program is a good example. It guarantees foreign investors worth $500,000, or those proven to have created at least 10 jobs under certain conditions, an immediate temporary green card, with a good shot at a permanent residence card within three years. The idea is that wealth thresholds ensure that new immigrants will probably be net payers in the U.S., and that the correlation between education level and wealth is generally high. Above all, it is meant to encourage capital investment. But these boundaries are too high, and thus many of the slots granted by the program are left unfilled every year.

Another weakness of the EB-5 program is that it only accommodates a certain type of immigrant, the well-endowed investor. The Kerry-Lugar Startup Visa tries to add to this limited selection by selecting for entrepreneurship, but it builds on many of the same principles. It requires prospective immigrants to show they have the savings to not burden American taxpayers, that they have obtained at least $100,000 investments from qualified investors for a venture they have founded. In doing so, the visa could actually provoke entrepreneurship among people who otherwise would not have considered it.

Congress tried for the Startup Visa because it should be low-hanging fruit, politically speaking. Venture capital-funded entrepreneurship is sexy, but to most of the population it is very remote. No jobs in Detroit or San Antonio feel threatened. It should be low-hanging fruit — but even this modest attempt did not pass. Thus we are left with failed attempts to chip away at the edges of a failing immigration policy when we need a big push for all high-qualified labor visas. America lags far behind nearly all other developed nations in terms of importing high-value labor. We are simply not granting companies the freedom they need in order to be successful.

Visa reform is a really cheap way to create jobs and increase tax revenues. It would be a shame if Congress was not able to explain that to the people who elected it. At the very least, passing a truly ambitious reform might provoke a debate that is high-profile enough to give them a chance to try.

Photo Credit: Anuska Sampedro

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