When activists, and politicians speak about immigration reform, we often envisage the keywords “undocumented immigrants”, or “amnesty”, “deportation”, and “borders” as if the only immigration problem needed to be addressed are Latino immigrants in this country. Indeed, this is often the only component in the rhetoric today about immigration in the United States. However, when President Obama addresses immigration reform, and he undoubtedly will in the upcoming months as we turn a corner from the fiscal cliff, he will need to do more than take on what to do with the undocumented, predominantly Hispanic, immigrants in this country.
When we only talk about undocumented Hispanic immigrants, we alienate every other type of immigrant out there in this country. The debate around immigration has been, to say the least, polarizing. Talk about granting drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, giving amnesty, providing welfare, etc. drives many Americans to call for slowing down immigration into the US, or for a complete freeze altogether. This country has arguably never been so divided between foreigners and nationals. It’s not only Latino immigrants that are being “otherized”, it’s all immigrants. Considering that this state faces an immense shortage of professionals in the maths, sciences, and technology—Otherizing, and not welcoming in immigrants is the last thing we need to do.
If we continue to talk about immigration as if it is a dirty word, we forget about how immigrants have helped bring the United States as one of the leaders in technology and innovation. A fourth of the owners of tech companies in Silicon Valley are foreign-nationals. The county that houses Silicon Valley, Santa Clarita, has one of the largest Asian populations in the country, at over 31%. That is the entire county—But in Silicon Valley itself, which harbors some of the most prestigious high-tech businesses in the US including Apple, Google, and Microsoft, Asians sometimes make the majority of the employees in these companies. Last week alone, a report by local newspaper “Mercury News” estimated that Asian workers now dominate the tech jobs in the Bay Area. People who oppose the growing number of Asian immigrants being recruited into high-tech companies argue that these businesses are giving American jobs to immigrants, and call for a freeze in H-1B visas. However, others argue that the only reason why companies like Microsoft are calling for an increase in issuing out H-1B visas is because the United States is in a shortage of IT specialists. Without these Asian immigrants, the US would be nowhere close to as technologically advance and innovative as it is.
As a result of the immigration debate which led to the curbing in H-1B visas and granting easy access to highly-skilled workers, in 2009 alone around 182,000 international students enrolled in US universities who would have likely stayed in this country, were forced back to their home countries. The Technology Policy Institute estimated the US lost around $13.6 billion that year with the loss of the potential of these students. It can go without saying that these highly-skilled immigrants contribute greatly to productivity growth in the United States, and buckling under pressure from the immigration debate and trying to preserve these high-tech jobs for Americans when there is a shortage of Americans in technology is only hurting this country.
This upcoming Spring, President Obama’s focus on immigration reform will be his 2nd term’s healthcare reform–complete with its national discussion, debate, and controversy. In light of this, we can’t forget that immigration reform is more than just addressing the undocumented issue. It will include all other immigrants that we tend to alienate, including granting easier access, and issuing more H-1B visas to the tech-savvy, predominantly Asian immigrants, which undoubtedly will gain bipartisan support. We all want Americans to take up these jobs in Silicon Valley. But until we improve our education, and steer more Americans into these high-tech careers, we’ll need people in the meantime to maintain the US’ strong information technology businesses. In this regard, we can see immigrants as a part of the solution, and not the problem in growing the US economy.