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The Harder Fix on Immigration is About More Than Skills

It’s been five years since we seriously attempted to reform U.S. immigration policy. Since then, partisan politics and extremist views have hijacked any sensibility on the topic, both in Congress and in many states and communities across the country. Five years ago, the Great Recession and housing crisis hadn’t yet wreaked economic havoc, crushing businesses, swelling unemployment, and threatening millions of homeowners. Back then, we had a lot less to worry about.

Reflecting those dramatic changes, immigration to the United States has slowed, but bitter immigration debates continue as economic anxiety grows.

The quest for job creation, innovation and high-skills has us looking at the growing number of international students differently these days, including the ones from countries that are now our greatest competitors. In the past, we were more likely to send them home. Today, we’d like to encourage more highly-educated immigrants to stay here and contribute to our own economy. 

These immigrants represent a contemporary “golden fleece” of sorts, and the clamor to offer them a permanent place in the U.S. economy is one area in the immigration debate where there is emerging bipartisan agreement.

Recognizing that our education system needs reform to better prepare U.S. workers to meet the needs of fast-changing, high-tech industries, there is increased accord that highly-educated foreigners can help our country bridge the gap.

When it comes to the importance of U.S.-educated immigrants, Congress gets it. Throughout the last year, numerous efforts to retain these immigrants in the United States have been introduced. The STAPLE Act, the INVEST Act, and just last month the STAR Act, SMART Jobs Act, and the Start-up Act 2.0, all slightly different, are attempts to open the door for permanent residency to U.S.-educated advanced science, technology, engineering, and math degree holders.

Fareed Zakaria gets it too. In this week’s TIME Magazine and on Sunday’s CNN prime-time special he discussed how the failure of the United States to retain these highly-educated workers reduces our competitiveness.

However, our immigration system--its successes, failures, and solutions for change--is multilayered. Fixing one problem might leave a gaping hole in another, and the reality is there is very little beyond high-skill immigrants our partisan leadership can agree upon.

Yet, there are at least two other immigrant groups that need attention so they can help move the United States ahead.

The first are low-skilled workers, those who specialize in jobs that may not require high levels of educational attainment. Yet, they are critical for growing the food we eat, cleaning our homes, offices, and yards and constructing the buildings around us, and caring for our sick and elderly. 

Many of these immigrant workers are already here, but more will be needed in key occupations slated for growth over the next 10 years.  Immigrants already play a large role as home health, personal care, and nursing aides; food preparation workers; child care workers; truck drivers and freight stock and material movers; and as construction, iron and rebar workers, and helpers to brick masons, carpenters, and pipe layers—making it likely we will depend on depend on immigrants to fill future openings.

The other, overlapping, group that must not be ignored if we are to remain economically strong is immigrants of all skill levels and their children already living in the United States who could use help getting to the next rung on the ladder. It is estimated that one out of every five college-educated immigrants is either underemployed in a low-skilled job or unemployed. Engaging these workers as well as other middle- and low-skilled immigrants already here promises to be a vital strategy for economic recovery and development.

Along with high-skilled immigrants, these immigrant workers and their children are tied to this country’s future economic prospects. In fact, demographers predict that over the next 40 years, immigrants and their children will be the only source of growth for the nation’s labor force, which would otherwise begin to shrink around 2015.

With an economy in flux like ours, we should ensure that as we bring in newcomers with specialized skills to fill in much needed gaps in our skilled workforce, we also cultivate those who are already here. 

  • Audrey Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. Her areas of expertise include demography, international migration, U.S. immigration policy, and urban and metropolitan change. She has written extensively on U.S. immigration trends, including immigrant integration, undocumented migration, naturalization and citizenship, and the changing racial and ethnic composition of the United States.

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