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Immigration Reform 2013: This is the Biggest Immigration Issue You Haven't Heard About

Immigration reform has lingered on the steps of the House of Representatives for almost two months, and its future is definitely … indefinite.

While the Senate was able to pass a comprehensive immigration bill with a super majority, the likelihood of comprehensive reform in the House is low at best. Instead earlier this month it was reported numerous House majority leaders, including Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), are looking to adopt a piecemeal approach. While topics like border security and a pathway to citizenship are very important provisions, there are a few important, albeit less sexy, provisions that will have an enormous impact on our nation, and are at risk of falling by the wayside.

The biggest of these is the increase of H-1B work visas and a set of new visas for foreign students and immigrants with a mastery of professions under the STEM category. If Congress does not pass visa reform it would be disastrous for the basic fabric of the U.S. economy, causing economic growth, education, and innovation to all stagnate.

The acronym STEM is broken down into four professional fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) that are extremely important for economic growth and technological advancement in any nation, and also happen to be professions that students in the United States are rarely choosing for their careers. While there is a domestic shortage of both students and teachers in the STEM fields, foreign students and immigrants are providing an easily justifiable option to America’s innovation drought.

Opening our immigration system to these immigrants would not just yield higher innovation. It would signal that America is not only trying to detract from a high, undocumented population but also attract immigrants with the potential to immediately impact our nation. December 2011 study completed by Madeline Zavodny, a professor of economics at Agnes Scott College and a common contributor to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) confirms that non-immigrant and immigrant visas with advanced doctoral or master’s degrees boost jobs for American citizens. In fact, for every 100 with advanced degrees in STEM fields results in 183 jobs created for United States citizens, with the number growing if the 100 immigrants were educated in the United States. Additionally these individuals provide more for government services than most stereotypes infer. For example, immigrants with doctorate and master degrees actually pay more in taxes than they receive in government benefits. 

Aside from the obvious job growth and economic benefits from this policy, there is potential to also greatly increase STEM education in the United States. Microsoft’s Brad Smith testified before Congress in late April about his company’s plan to turn H-1B visa fees into education for American children. If each visa is provided to businesses for a fee of $10,000, the United States can invest an estimated 200 million dollars in STEM education each year, effectively educating students and subsidizing those willing to teach. This money will go a long way filling the 80,000 unfilled STEM jobs created each year that America’s workforce has proven it is not qualified for. 

Unfortunately this policy has not been enacted due in part to a difference of opinion in how to create the visas given out. Bills proposed by both parties in the House this year are nearly identical apart from one thing. While Democrats advocate for creating a new visa category for STEM visas and increasing H-1B work visas, Republicans would like to cut visas from other programs, namely the diversity visa lottery. This lottery grants 55,000 visas each year to immigrants from countries with low immigration rates. Division over cases of fraud and the necessity of the category has crippled every piece of House legislation, and definitely has the potential to kill any bill included in the piecemeal approach coming in the House.

While amnesty and border control are certainly important discussions for any type of immigration reform, it is important to not forget the positive impact that immigration can have on our nation. Strengthening our border, and bringing upwards of 11 million people out from hiding are definitely necessary. However, instilling a new system that invites the world’s best and brightest to our nation, and uses their skills and expertise to educate a new generation of Americans is exactly the economic kick-start we have been waiting for. For that reason it is important to ensure that this policy does not get lost in the shuffle of bills in the House’s immigration reform, or that it does not fall to a bargaining chip to remove visa programs as it has before.

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