Quality ignored in immigration debate

Each year, more than 20 million people legally enter the United States. Of these, about 800,000 eventually obtain legal permanent residency. Although foreign-born residents make up only 9.7 percent of the population, the number of immigrants allowed in the United States each year remains a moot point in immigration policy debates. The issue of quality is too often lost, and should always be considered, when deciding immigration policy.
The current immigration policy is a mixed and often competing bag of priorities. The rules make it easier for unskilled immigrants to become citizens while keeping the highly qualified at bay. A “family preference” category allows unlimited number of visas to certain relatives of permanent residents. On the other hand, it places stringent restrictions on highly educated professionals who seek work permits. One work permit visa, the H-1B, is a non-immigrant visa that allows foreign professionals with a college degree to work in the United States. The visa allows 65,000 each year and usually gets full by May.
In recent years, proposals by the Department of Labor placed even more restrictions on the two most commonly used visa categories: a temporary work permit and a transfer visa. The two work permits are used mainly by employers to hire international personnel. Such restrictions are harmful to companies that use a high number of immigrant labor. The labor department argues that companies exaggerate the vacancy problem so that they can have easier access to cheap foreign labor. Although the two entities dispute the actual number of unfilled jobs, there is no doubt that if companies cannot fill the jobs here, they will go offshore and take the mundane U.S. jobs with them.
The most dramatic argument against admitting immigrants is that they take jobs held by U.S. citizens. The demand for any sort of worker is constant in the short run. Therefore, additional immigrants must have some negative impact on the wages or unemployment in a given occupation. But contrary to the populist belief, economists have firmly concluded that, in the long run, immigrants raise the standard of living for all U.S. citizens.
Anti-immigration proponents, who consider immigrants to be economic, social and demographic threats, argue they put a high burden on tax payers. Citizens have to bear the cost of immigrant welfare programs and public services including schools and hospitals. However, unlike their low-skilled counterparts, educated immigrants do not drive down wages and they pay more in taxes than they use in services.
Restrictionist proposals are likely to be advanced, especially at time of rising unemployment or other social distress. In 1995, for example, the Labor Department’s new extremely burdensome regulations for H-1B prompted a federal lawsuit by the National Association of Manufacturers. However, with a healthy economy, raising the temporary work visa to 95,000 people, as proposed by Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Michigan, would make the number of unskilled and skilled workers more proportionate.