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Immigration Reform Would Be the Biggest Gift We Could Get This Year

When it takes session in January, the 113th Congress will have a number of critical issues that demand attention. There will be the potential fallout from the fiscal cliff, a new round of debt ceiling negotiations, and confirmation hearings for new cabinet secretaries, among others. But there is one policy matter that, while complex and long elusive, enjoys broad calls for improvement and immense potential for impact. The greatest gift we could get next year from Washington would be a comprehensive effort to finally fix America’s broken immigration system.

President Obama has signaled that immigration reform will be an early priority for his Administration in 2013. He’s not alone in calling for reform. The leading Republican presidential candidates all supported some elements of immigration reform, mostly focused on high-skilled labor and border security. And congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle are also coming together, with a bipartisan group of senators already meeting to discuss the issue.

A number of trade groups and research organizations from across industry and ideology have also signaled their support and have outlined the costs of inaction and benefits of reform. The U.S. Travel Association estimates that visa hurdles have resulted in a loss of 78 million foreign visitors over the past decade, resulting in the forfeiture of $606 billion in spending and 500,000 American jobs every year. Tourism and hospitality companies, as well as agricultural businesses, also find it difficult to hire short-term or seasonal workers – positions that Americans are often unable or unwilling to fill. While they depend on these employees to meet consumer demand, businesses often face bureaucratic barriers that can make an application for a temporary H-2B visa take several weeks and cost thousands of dollars.

Immigrants play important roles in America’s high-tech sectors as well but face similar obstacles. Researchers at Duke and UC Berkeley found that 25% of technology and engineering companies started between 1995 and 2005 had at least one immigrant key founder and those companies created more than 450,000 jobs. Another report by the American Enterprise Institute and the Partnership for a New American Economy found that every foreign-born STEM graduate that stays in the U.S. creates 2.62 American jobs. But despite their strong track record, the U.S. still lacks a visa for immigrant entrepreneurs, doesn’t grant STEM graduates enough green cards, and doesn’t have an adequate supply of H-1B visas for high-skilled immigrants.

And of course, a plan to address undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States must also be part of the fix. A recent poll demonstrates broad support for legalization, with 62% of Americans supporting a path to citizenship. And the Center for American Progress estimates that legalizing the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would result in a gain of $1.5 trillion in GDP over 10 years.

The benefits are clear and the support for immigration reform is there. The question that remains is what’s the best strategy for Congress to pursue. Some argue for a piecemeal approach that would first address areas where there is broad support and potential for impact, and leave tougher questions for a later time. Given the political climate, this might seem like a practical path. But a comprehensive package might actually be more viable. Addressing challenges in silos would siphon support from those whose issues don’t make the first cut. Therefore, Congress must confront all components together – from a path to legalization to border security to a streamlined process for new immigrants – and leave enough room for the typical bartering that comes with political negotiations.

Past administrations and Congresses have tried to pass immigration reform and have failed. But we can no longer afford inaction if America hopes to maintain its status as a global engine for innovation and a destination for hard-working talent from around the world. If Washington can finally deliver a comprehensive package to fix our nation’s broken immigration system, it will be the gift that will keep on giving for generations to come.

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