Democratic Rep. John Delaney and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson agree that highly-skilled immigrants are valuable to the U.S. economy—they just disagree on what to do about it.
As Delaney put it: Democrats prioritize finding a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants while Republicans want to first focus on securing the border.
"We all want every American to have the opportunity to build a good life for themselves and their family," Johnson said. "There's wide disparity in terms of how to provide those types of opportunities, how to achieve that prosperity."
Delaney, a member of the Joint Economic Committee, and Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on Tuesday keynoted a National Journal event, "Pathways to Reform: A Discussion on High-Skilled Immigration Policy," underwritten by Qualcomm.
"I agree with so much I heard," said Johnson, who spoke after Delaney, "but there's a heavy disagreement in terms of what the federal government really ought to do."
Echoing the positions of their respective parties, Delaney talked about comprehensive reform and Johnson talked about piecemeal, step-by-step change.
Delaney said he thinks there will eventually be a House version of the 2013 immigration bill passed in the Senate; Johnson said he would argue the "comprehensive bill ... wasn't going to work."
But at the end of the day, both want to retain talent in the U.S.
"Let's make sure the smartest minds stay here to grow the economy," Johnson said.
Delaney said ideological progress on the economic arguments would be an important step towards achieving more comprehensive reform, despite core disagreements between parties.
"One of the paths to enhancing economic growth is to embrace a forward-looking immigration strategy that allows more visas, more green cards, allows more entrepreneurs to work in our economy, create jobs, get that leverage that we need, and allow these companies to compete globally," Delaney said. "So this is a growth issue. It's a current issue and it's a long term growth issue."
Harry Holzer, a Georgetown University professor, spoke on a panel of experts following the keynote addresses. He offered a more nuanced view of immigration reform than either politician.
"Right now, we need more innovation, we need more patents generated, we need more startups. There's been a decline in business startups "¦ high-skill immigration is good for that. High-skilled immigrants create more startups," he said. "I think the best thing we can do is open the permanent pathways to high-skill immigration."
On the other hand, he said, there is a "modest negative effect on the wages of unskilled native workers" and he agrees with Johnson that "we want to raise the incentives for the legals, reduce the incentives for the illegals."
And while he supports a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, at the end of the day it's about the economics.
"Other people talk about the values, and I'll let other people talk about that," Holzer said. "The economic argument to me is quite strong."
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Caitlin Owens is a health care reporter at National Journal. Her work has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.