Some prominent Republicans, including Mitt Romney, have recently signaled their willingness to consider legal immigration reform -- but it's not clear they understand the magnitude of the problem or the proper solution.
Romney told a Univision audience that he supported immigration reform and told a group of Latino elected officials that he'd "staple a green card" to the diploma of every immigrant who earned an advanced degree. Even stalwart immigration foe Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) seemed willing to consider the idea of more visas for highly skilled graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). But the need for more highly skilled workers is only a small part of our immigration problem -- and even in this area, Republicans still appear to be appeasing immigration restriction groups rather than considering what's good for the country.
America needs more highly skilled workers, but a Republican amendment to grant 50,000 STEM graduates that failed in the House this week would simply have replaced one set of available visas -- so-called diversity visas that made available the same number of visas to applicants from countries that contribute few immigrants to the U.S. pool -- with another. Worse, if fewer than 50,000 STEM graduates applied, the visas would not be re-allocated to other classes of applicants as diversity visas had been, thus reducing overall immigration.
At the heart of Republican intransigence on immigration is one basic misconception: high-skilled immigrants are good for America, but low-skilled immigrants harm the country. Romney summed it up when speaking to donors in his now infamous YouTube remarks: "We make it hard for people who get educated here or elsewhere to make this their home. Unless, of course, you have no skill or experience, in which case you're welcome to cross the border and stay here for the rest of your life."
But those "unskilled" workers actually have skills America needs. Despite our technologically advanced society, there are millions of jobs in which the basic skills necessary are the willingness to show up to work on time every day and perform tasks that require stamina, perseverance and respect for authority. Those jobs don't always pay well, especially in industries that have low profit margins, which is why many American-born workers shun them. And those who might be expected to fill the same niche as low-skilled foreign workers -- American-born high school dropouts, for example -- aren't very attractive to employers.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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