Erik Telford

Although the conversation on immigration reform tends to unfold in terms of border security, enforcement of laws, and pathways to citizenship – there is one critical aspect this debate that has failed to break through all of the other noise. Immigration reform could help the economy grow--if done the right way.

Instead of getting bogged down in negotiations about amnesty and its various forms, conservatives should drive the conversation toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and H1-B visas. These visas can help bring the world’s best and brightest to America--the kind of people who will start businesses, buy homes, pay taxes, and contribute to society.

Conservatives can take a solutions-oriented lead in driving economic growth in America’s high-tech sector by pushing through Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) Skills Visa Act independent of other legislation. The bill would make more H1-B visas available to foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced STEM degrees who are already in America, allowing us to capitalize on the investment we have made in educating these young people. By bringing this legislation to an immediate floor vote and pressuring the Senate to do the same, House Republicans can set the narrative on the immigration debate.

At a briefing on immigration reform at Microsoft’s offices in Washington, DC, this week, some of the brightest minds in the conservative movement discussed the tricky intersection between technology, immigration, economic growth, and electoral politics.

Doug Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative think tank American Action Forum, presented on the potential economic benefits of immigration reform. With birth rates in America slipping toward the low levels of continental Europe, we are increasingly reliant on immigrants to keep our population--and accordingly, our labor force, GDP, and economy--from declining.

Holtz-Eakin cautioned, however, that immigration reform must be designed to attract more skilled immigrants looking for work. Among the industrialized nations, the U.S. grants comparatively few visas for economic reasons and by far the most visas for family reunification reasons. For immigration reform to work, he argued, America should follow nations like the U.K. in prioritizing work visas for immigrants with specialized knowledge.

Nowhere is this specialized knowledge more needed than in the STEM fields, where despite the Obama economy’s high unemployment, there are more jobs available than qualified applicants.

Erik Telford

Erik Telford is President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.