If we’re going to debate immigration, let’s at least get our facts right. Contrary to heated rhetoric coming from both the left and right, we’re not being flooded with foreign-born residents.
The annual inflow of immigrants, legal and illegal, amounts to about five people for every 1,000 U.S. residents. The rate was twice as high in the early years of the 20th century.
Do we need to fix our immigration laws? Yes. But does the primary focus need to be on keeping unwanted people out? Emphatically, no.
Major American industries like agriculture, construction and information technology would shrink without ready access to immigrant workers. As Congress debates immigration reform, its primary goal should be to provide the work force our economy needs.
To that end, it’s encouraging to see Democratic leaders reach a compromise with President Bush that includes a path to citizenship for some people who are in the country illegally. The compromise bill also includes an increase in the number of visas for skilled workers, and it creates a "points" system that would favor immigrants with education and job skills.
Business groups, though, are already griping about the bill. Compete America, a coalition that includes companies from Altria and Coca-Cola to Google and Microsoft, complains that the number of H1B visas for skilled workers still won’t be enough, and that the points system "will take key personnel decision-making out of the hands of U.S. employers."
In short, companies would rather recruit the workers they want, not have to choose among those the government lets in. The high-tech folks point out that a majority of U.S. advanced degrees in science, math and engineering are earned by foreigners, and that immigration quotas are too narrow to let those valuable graduates stay in this country.
Lower-tech industries aren’t satisfied either. The Associated General Contractors of America, a trade group for the construction industry, says it’s concerned about the immigration bill’s enforcement provisions, which would require companies to check workers’ records against a giant government database.
It sounds cumbersome, especially for an industry where time is money. "On a construction job, you can’t wait around for weeks or even several days to get your workers cleared," says Ken Simonson, the AGC’s chief economist. "They’re looking at implementing some streamlined verification procedure, but that remains a hypothetical at this point. We’re very concerned about the details and the expense."
The contractors also are worried about the idea of requiring illegal workers, if they want a path to legitimacy, to leave the country and then apply to come back. Simonson said the construction industry likes the idea of "greater certainty" about immigrants’ legal status, but fears a disruption in business if large numbers of workers are forced to leave temporarily.
Doing without immigrants simply isn’t an option. "We’ve been concerned for years about there not being enough workers entering construction and the large numbers approaching retirement age," Simonson said. "We certainly see immigration as an important part of the solution."
So, after we get our facts straight, let’s acknowledge one thing: We need hardworking people from other parts of the world. We need them to build our houses, harvest our crops, design our new high-tech devices.
Yes, we should enforce our immigration laws. But first we need to write laws that meet the needs of a 21st-century economy.