Why Immigration Is the Most Important Debate the Presidential Campaigns Aren't Having

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Washington's failure to enact immigration reform is slowing down American businesses. Does anybody care?

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Reuters

John Weston, Eric Buckland and Mike Bloomberg don't have much in common.

Weston is a farmer struggling to keep in business the 1,000-acre farm his family has operated in Western Maine for seven generations.

Buckland is an entrepreneur who runs a small high-tech manufacturing company in North Carolina's famed Research Triangle Park that makes handheld retinal scanners.

And Mike Bloomberg is the billionaire mayor of New York who doesn't have many struggles at all.

This week, though, all three were deeply disappointed in Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. After Bloomberg released a detailed report and held press conferences on Monday urging both candidates to make immigration a serious issue in this year's presidential campaign, the response from both campaigns was dead silence.

That neither campaign responded to Bloomberg's challenge suggests that the brief moment when the choice of Paul R. Ryan as Romney's running mate might hearken a serious debate about America's future seems to be passing. There is still time for a change, but this is increasingly a campaign about polarizing the country, not unifying it.

For both campaigns, leading a serious discussion about how to fix immigration is apparently not their priority. "I think the campaigns each want to play to their bases," said John Feinblatt, Bloomberg's chief policy adviser, "and are ignoring mounting evidence that shows immigration should be part of our economic policy."

Obama's enactment by executive order of a program that allows illegal immigrants to apply for deportation deferrals attracted thousands of applicants this week. The move will also clearly help Obama attract Hispanic voters, a key factor in this year's election.

But Obama's initiative doesn't fix the underlying system. On Monday, with the backing of corporate executives, elected officials and a hundred university chancellors, Bloomberg called for a massive overhaul of U.S. immigration policy. Citing a report that immigrants start more new business than native-born Americans, Bloomberg called for four changes:

  • Automatically grant green cards to any foreign graduates students who receive advanced degrees in the STEM area - science, technology, engineering and math.

  • Create an "entrepreneur visa" for foreigners who want to come to the United States, have a detailed business plan and have persuaded venture capitalists or other qualified investors to invest in their idea.

  • Increase the percentage of visas granted on the basis of economic need from the current 7 percent.

  • And create a guest worker program for seasonal and labor-intensive industries like farming and resort hotels.

From a tractor in Maine and hospital in North Carolina, Weston and Buckland both cheered. Months before Bloomberg made his proposal, both men complained that Washington's failure to enact immigration reform was slowing their businesses.

STIFF-ARMING TALENT

In a February visit to his company, Buckland told me that U.S. immigration policies blocked him from hiring the talented foreign-born graduate students he desperately needs at his small company, which was spun out from the Duke University Biomedical Engineering Department.

He was encountering a shortage of qualified applicants, he said, because low rates of native-born Americans were studying STEM fields. When Buckland advertised for software and optical engineering positions, he received only five to 10 applicants, and 75 percent of them were foreign-born.

"We need that talent if we're going to compete globally, period," Buckland told me in a phone interview this week. "The ability to find talented software engineers has been one of our largest challenges."

Buckland said he was 18 months behind where he had hoped to be in developing software programs that help doctors operate the scanners his company manufactures. He said the sole focus on even greater tax breaks for investors as a way to spark economic growth was misguided.

"Do we have enough technical talent to grow our knowledge economy?" Buckland asked. "My answer is no."

In Maine, Weston, whom I know through his sister, a former classmate, is trying to innovate as well. When the New England dairy farm business collapsed in the 1980s, his father looked for a new business model. He was desperate to keep a family farm that has operated in Fryeburg, Maine since 1799 in business. He chose vegetable farming and retail sales.

Since attending the University of Maine, John has expanded on the idea. He got portions of the farm certified as organic and opened up two large retail stands to cater to wealthy tourists visiting the area. Business grew, but the younger Weston had a problem: Americans were no longer willing to be farmworkers.

"As the generations changed, it stopped," he said. "You could do retail work, which was much more attractive."

Instead of hiring illegal immigrants, his father hired summer farmworkers from other countries through the current U.S. guest worker program. The two men from Jamaica employed at the farm this summer work far harder than Americans, according to Weston, picking vegetables at twice the rate American workers had in the past.

'SLOW, CONVOLUTED, AND DISCRIMINATORY'

Weston said that since the recession, the Department of Labor has instituted ever more stringent requirements that he prove no Americans will do the work. Each year, Weston pays hundreds of dollars to advertise the jobs in papers in Maine, New Hampshire, Florida and California, and files dozens of pages of paperwork to prove it. He was audited last year and fears that a technical flaw in his application will result in no workers and the possible closure of his farm.

"What ultimately frustrates me is how hard the government is fighting farmers that are asking for help," Weston said in an email this week. "Rather than try to offer productive solutions, their time and money are going into creating ways to make farming more difficult."

At the same time, talented researchers educated in the U.S. are leaving because they can't get visas. In a May report, Bloomberg's think tank described how other countries were providing incentives to attract talented and hard-working foreigners.

In a phone interview this week, Zhang Yuanbo, one of the cases described in the report, said he had decided to return to China after getting a Ph.D. in physics at Columbia University. The American visa process was so slow, convoluted and discriminatory that he gave up.

"There is much more research money now, it's much better than the states," he said in a phone interview from China. "There is more opportunity in China."

Back home, politicians focus on blocking illegal immigrants from crossing the Mexico-U.S. border. Demands for building a massive wall spanning the border are popular among Romney's conservative base.

Feinblatt, the Bloomberg policy director, said border crossings are at their lowest level since the 1970s. A recent New York Times article said that the improving economy in Mexico, growing middle class there and weak U.S. economy has resulted in zero net migration between Mexico and the U.S.

"Rather than making political calculations," Feinblatt said. "Both candidates should be making economic calculations."

I agree. We no longer rule the roost. We need to work with the world, not fear and fight it.

This article also appeared on Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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