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.
Unlike immigrants who lack high school degrees because they come from countries where the opportunity to earn a degree is not universal, high school dropouts from the U.S. have already demonstrated they lack the very attributes that low-skilled immigrants have in abundance, including initiative and discipline. And American high school graduates rarely take available jobs picking tomatoes, processing chickens, cleaning toilets, or cleaning houses and caring for children so their mothers can work.
And it's not just the jobs these immigrants fill; it's the taxes they pay (even illegal aliens pay taxes, including two-thirds who pay payroll taxes, as well as sales and property taxes as homeowners or renters). Yes, they use services, which places an unfair burden on states and localities where they are concentrated, but they are also helping the Social Security system stay afloat with their payroll taxes. And the biggest cost of low-skilled immigrants is educating their children. But schooling immigrants' children means the second generation will move up the economic ladder. The evidence is already in; these second generation Americans do better than their parents and perform better than third and higher generation Americans from the same ethnic groups.
If the 11 million illegal immigrants already living here followed the GOP platform prescription and self-deported, the result for the country would be a disaster equivalent to a neutron bomb wiping out a major city. If 11 million people suddenly disappeared, millions of homes and apartments would suddenly go vacant, which would destroy a housing market that is already on life support. It would bankrupt many businesses, including large swaths of the food and hospitality industries. It would put thousands of Americans out of work, shutting down assembly lines for the cars and trucks these immigrants currently purchase, requiring layoffs of teachers and support staff for educators who currently teach their kids, and closing local stores in which these immigrants shop.
It's good that some in the GOP are softening their rhetoric -- but the party will have to do better than offering a plan to bring in a few thousand more skilled immigrants if they're serious about fixing the problem.