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The nonsensical immigration debate

| Thursday, September 25, 2014

When Rick Santorum, a 2012 presidential candidate and potential 2016 presidential candidate, visited campus last week, I found his answers to questions about immigration policy very troubling. For Santorum, the push for increased legal immigration is “a horrible confluence” of the Democratic Party and big business. From his perspective, leaders of these groups are “looking at [immigration] as political power on the one side and profits on the other side, and the guys in the middle, the average working Americans, get stiffed.” His analysis, however, misses some key considerations.

Santorum’s expectation of depressed wages for working-class Americans might not be as definite as he believes. First, immigrants often complement American workers in the labor market, taking jobs that might not be filled otherwise. Contrary to popular belief, most undocumented immigrants are employed, so clearly there is demand for labor that these workers are meeting.

Second, the increased demand for goods and services that immigration produces in the economy enables increased production, mediating some of the downward pressure that some expect on wages. Moreover, this increased demand opens opportunities for working Americans to ascend to higher-paying leadership positions in business in order to manage the surge in production. In addition, immigrants start new businesses twice as often as native-born Americans, and this creates enormous economic potential.

Furthermore, immigration is an unparalleled opportunity for the United States to compete for human capital on the global market. Currently, thousands of foreign students arrive at American universities each year and receive a world-class education. When these students graduate, however, there are few H-1B work visas (capped at 65,000 annually) for skilled workers in the aftermath of 9/11. It often costs sponsoring companies upwards of $50,000 in legal fees to navigate the bureaucracy and secure a visa for a foreign employee. These constraints allow other countries, like Australia, New Zealand and Canada to outcompete the U.S. in skilled immigrants per capita.

Judging by Santorum’s rhetoric, however, it is likely he has not considered these points seriously. Debates over immigration reform are indicative of the acrimonious atmosphere in Washington and the inability to listen demonstrated in recent years in our nation’s capital.

Liberals, ostensibly moved by commitment to social justice and compassion for the plight of undocumented immigrants, frequently advocate “comprehensive” policy shifts, often termed “amnesty.” Conservatives, on the other hand, emphasize platitudes about rule of law and declare an ironclad commitment to “securing the border.” With these boundaries in place, self-aggrandizing and feckless political leaders are able to hold their offices and be remarkably unproductive.

The irony is that both sides are right, and both are wrong. Each ideology contains a grain of truth at the expense of the other.

To conservatives, I ask: What happened to the idea of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?” Engraved on the Statue of Liberty, this notion embodies the spirit of this nation from its founding. Please do not neglect this salient detail in favor of indifference to the origin of your citizenship because your ancestors happened to arrive a few decades earlier.

Also, securing the border is a vague objective that leads to postponing essential reform of a broken system. Our border will not be “secure” without a viable and demand-driven pipeline for legal immigration, as demand will continue to incentivize illegal immigration. Moreover, violence stemming from drug cartels must be differentiated from immigration. According to the Pew Research Center, undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.

Continuing to trap illegal immigrants in a socially disenfranchised position drains tax revenue from social programs that are headed for bankruptcy, discourages reporting criminal activity for fear of exposing immigration status and prevents cultural exchange that promotes understanding and peace.

To liberals, I ask: How can you neglect the possible consequences if increased legal immigration does not correspond with a reduction of illegal immigration? The destabilizing costs include opportunities for criminal activities such as terrorism, businesses continuing to cheat undocumented immigrants out of minimum wage, increased unemployment, depressed wages, overburden on social services and rising health care costs to cover emergency medical services used by undocumented immigrants for routine medical care.

The only solution to the demagoguery preventing meaningful debate is to present policy proposals that respect the concerns of those who disagree with us. We need a clear vision for an immigration system built firmly upon both pragmatic structure for security and a magnanimity that befits our tradition as the Land of the Free.

Our identity as a nation is not rooted in a shared ethnicity or culture, but on a common set of values and ideals that will not be degraded, but bolstered, by newcomers. As the son of an immigrant, Santorum should realize that by putting politics aside and pursuing the common good, immigration can help the U.S. become a bastion of opportunity and social justice for all.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Dan Sehlhorst

Dan Sehlhorst is a junior studying economics and political science. Hailing from Troy, Ohio, and a resident of Zahm House, he looks forward to conversation about his columns and can be contacted at dsehlhor@nd.edu

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  • catx

    Mr. Sehlhorst comments are for the most part correct, and for the record, ones to which I agree. That being said, as someone who has been through the legal immigration system (recently obtaining a permanent residency visa (aka. green card) after a many year wait in the employment based backlog while maintaining my legal status on an H-1B visa), there is an inaccuracy in the article, and another comment.

    First is in “it often costs sponsoring companies upwards of $50,000 in legal fees to navigate the bureaucracy and secure a visa for a foreign employee” in relation to an H-1B visa — the correct cost is more in the range of $3,000 – $5,000 for a foreign employee. While a notable premium to employment costs, it is an order of magnitude less than that stated in the article. ($20,000 – $40,000 cost range applies to sponsoring a foreign employee for permanent residency, which maybe what Mr. Sehlhorst is referring to, but that cost is spread over 2-3 to many years.)

    Second is that critics of the H-1B visa program who say it is taking jobs away from citizens in favor of lower cost foreign employees are not completely wrong. There are little discussed facts about the H-1B program, such as 10-12 foreign owned IT staffing companies take up the large majority of the annual quota of visas. If this practice was better controlled then the intent of the H-1B visa system to allow select hiring of world class talent would be realized, and companies looking to hire a few foreign employees with specific skills would not get squeezed out. (Companies that do hire foreign direct employees (versus contract staff) using the H-1B visa as intended typically pay these employees at or above the market wage plus a premium for the immigration costs.) A related matter is the abuse of the curriculum practical training (CPT) employment authorization by visa and diploma mill private colleges and universities that cater almost exclusively to foreign ‘students’. These so-called ‘schools’ are essentially a way for a foreign person to buy a student (F-1) visa and employment authorization.

    There is (much) more that could be written on the injustices and inequities in the legal immigration system (including ones that the current Administration has aggressively compounded), such as children with legal dependent immigration status who turn 21 and ‘age-out’ while their parent waits in the backlog for a permanent residency visa (green card) being kicked out of the immigration line and even the country, and families separated while waiting in the backlog for F-2A visas. There is much that can be done to fix the legal immigration system that is not controversial between the Democrats and the Republicans, and these should take priority over some form of legalization for undocumented (dare I say illegal) aliens — is it not fair and just to first consider those who proactively maintain their legal status at considerable effort and expense — and these are the people who are being lost in the immigration debate.

    Thank you.

  • StopTheLies

    Hey Dan, I fully support the tripling of temporary foreign workers on H-1B visas; only IF they are limited to just economists and the increase effective for Spring 2016. Will this work for you?