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Web Chat: Rethinking Immigration Policy in the United States

As more states consider legislation similar to Arizona’s controversial immigration law, Brookings expert Darrell West explores some opportunities for American immigration reform in his new book Brain Gain. He recommends rethinking America’s immigration policies and suggests changes aimed at enhancing the country’s economic prosperity, innovation and competitiveness.

On Wednesday, July 7, West answered your questions on immigration reform in the United States in a live web chat, moderated by POLITICO.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:30 Seung Min Kim: Good afternoon. We’re here with Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, to talk about immigration – an issue that should play a key role in this fall’s midterm elections. Welcome Darrell, and we look forward to your questions.

12:30 [Comment From Jennie: ] Where does the title Brain Gain come from?

12:32 Darrell: I chose the title of Brain Gain to make the point about the economic contributions of immigrants. Half of Silicon Valley companies had a foreign-born co-founder, and individuals such as Albert Einstein, Sergey Brin, and Andrew Grove have had a tremendous impact on the United States. Imagine if Google were in Russia or the micro-chip industry had started in Hungary!

12:32 [Comment From Sam Nugent: ] Have you spoken to nonnative-born immigrants or researched the issue of immigrants who immigrated here legally and have similar beliefs?

12:34 Darrell: I am married to a nonnative born immigrant. Indeed, my inspiration for writing this book dates back to the experience I had bringing her to the U.S. a few years ago and applying for a green card. I was glad I had a Ph.D. in political science because I never would have figured out how to do things without detailed knowledge of government organizations.

12:34 [Comment From Eric: ] How do you see immigrants contributing to competitiveness to the United States?

12:36 Darrell: Immigrants contribute to competitiveness because they start businesses, pay taxes, and do seasonal agricultural jobs. We need to recognize their contributions to our economic, social, cultural, and culinary lives.

12:36 [Comment From Tracy: ] How big of an issue will immigration reform be in the mid-term elections do you think? And given the partisan battle over this issue, is there a compromise solution you see both sides agreeing on?

12:38 Darrell: Immigration will be a big issue in the midterm elections because of the Arizona law, the federal lawsuit against Arizona, the rising power of Latino voters, and the strong feeling that nearly every person has about immigration. We are in a situation where virtually no one likes the status quo.

12:38 [Comment From Leo: ] Do you think a pathway to legal residency/working status based on a system like the UK's (or Canada's) is feasible for the U.S.?

12:40 Darrell: Canada has a point system by which potential immigrants accumulate entry points based on experience, education, and other qualifications. I don't see the U.S. adopting that approach. But Canada is far more strategic about immigration than is the United States. It devotes about 58 percent of its annual visas to employment-related reasons, compared to 15 percent in the United States.

12:40 [Comment From Sameer Vishwanathan: ] What is your take on the new Arizona law?

12:43 Darrell: The new Arizona law creates more problems than it solves. It places additional burdens on law enforcement officers to become immigration agents and increases the odds of racial profiling. However, I don't think the federal lawsuit against Arizona over this law is going to be successful. The Justice Department claims states can't make immigration policy when in fact states have been passing immigration laws for decades. In the 19th century, Southern states limited migration to their states based on race and property. California tried to exclude the Chinese in the late 19th century. And governors today sign all sorts of immigration laws and executive orders related to benefits and law enforcement. I don't think the courts will buy the idea that only the federal government can make immigration policy.

12:43 [Comment From Leann: ] Should the U.S. make it easier for immigrants to become legal? And more importantly, how?

12:45 Darrell: Public opinion polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans favor a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally if they learn English, pay a fine, pay back taxes, and pass a background check. There is a myth that Americans don't want illegal immigrants to stay here. The fact is many people support that if those specific conditions are satisfied.

12:45 [Comment From Guest: ] Do you see brain drain in future if the immigration system in U.S. is not fixed ? Why?

12:46 Darrell: I think people from abroad still will want to come to America even if there is no immigration reform because they see the U.S. as very desirable. Even in our current economic difficulties, they think the economic future is better than what they have in their home countries. They appreciate the freedom and opportunity that they find here.

12:47 [Comment From Angela: ] You critique the U.S.'s broad family eligibility rules. But family-based preferences do not include eligibility for aunts, uncles, or cousins, as you state on page 23. Would you still argue for cutting back on these preferences?

12:50 Darrell: The U.S. awards 64 percent of its annual visas based on family unification. We only allocate 15 percent of visas for employment-related purposes. Countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have nearly the reverse proportions. I support family unification but think we should refine our definition of family to focus more on immediate family members. Those are the ones who are critical for upbringing and educational attainment.

12:52 Seung Min Kim: How can we streamline the visa/green card application process, where people right now have to wait for years to get approved? And would raising the caps on visas (such as the H-1B) help?

12:55 Darrell: There are technology solutions that would streamline the visa/green card application process. Right now, virtually every part of that process is done on paper and mailed to immigration offices. I know based on my wife's experience applying for a green card that it takes a long time. Technology can speed up that process. In terms of H-1B visas, right now we only allocate 65,000 (6.5 percent of our annual total) to high-skilled workers. I think we should go back to the 195,000 we had between 1999 and 2004. This will help foreign graduates of American universities who get Ph.Ds in science, technology, and engineering areas to stay in the United States. These are the people who will innovate and create jobs in the future.

12:56 [Comment From Paul Varian: ] Since nobody seems to like the status quo, how would you rate the possibility that Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year? Or even move a bill forward? If not this year, how soon?

12:58 Darrell: Immigration reform this year is not likely because despite the massive dissatisfaction with the status quo, federal legislators are paralyzed. They literally are incapable of addressing this issue right now. Of course, their inaction encourages states to pass their own immigration laws so we should expect more states to follow the example of Arizona and enact their own laws. My hope is that Congress will address comprehensive immigration reform next year and do it on a bipartisan basis.

12:59 [Comment From Jade: ] How would you respond to those who say immigrants bring in more criminal activities and weigh down on our education and health care systems?

1:01 Darrell: Crime actually is down across the United States, including in border states. When illegal immigrants commit crimes and are convicted, they are getting deported. Many people don't realize that the U.S. has deported about 350,000 per year over the last decade. Prison authorities now match fingerprints and background checks for those who are incarcerated.

1:02 [Comment From dave r.: ] Do you have any predictions on how many other states will pass state immigration laws along the lines of Arizona's? News reports have said many are considering it.

1:04 Darrell: A number of other states are considering Arizona-style laws. This may make those worried about illegal immigration feel better, but it is not going to substantially affect immigration policy. Many don't realize that the number of illegal border-crossers from Mexico already is at a 30-year low. We actually are having success on border security due to 1) our bad economy and 2) the strenuous border enforcement efforts we have made over the past decade.

1:04 [Comment From Nick Gazett: ] What can comprehensive immigration reform do to make assimilation a less painful process for immigrants and for native residents?

1:06 Darrell: Comprehensive reform needs to include efforts to help new entrants integrate into American life. People say they want immigrants to learn English but there already is a big shortage of English classes for immigrants in many metropolitan areas. Enrollment lines are long and we need to do more to help people learn English and assimilate into economic and social life.

1:07 [Comment From Leandro: ] How do the recommendations in your book correspond to concerns about border security?

1:11 Darrell: We need to take border security seriously. Unless Americans feel secure about borders, there won't be any immigration reform. I think technology can help with law enforcement because it is very costly to have the Border Patrol monitor every mile of our border. We have dramatically increased the money spent on border enforcement over the past decade and illegal crossings are at a 30 year low.

1:11 [Comment From Shawn: ] What kind of policies do you recommend regarding international students studying at American colleges and universities?

1:12 Darrell: Since 9/11, international students have faced increased barriers to studying in the U.S. They get admitted in April and have just a few months to apply for a visa, go to the US consulate in their home country, undergo a personal interview, and get the visa. We have created real hardships for American universities wanting to bring foreign students to America.

1:13 [Comment From Susan in Maine: ] How might allowing more foreign-born students to stay in the United States affect my life here in Maine?

1:15 Darrell: Foreign born students enrich people's lives all across America (yes even Maine). They broaden our perspective and show us how people in other parts of the world live. If we let more of them stay in the United States, data clearly suggest that many of them are going to contribute to our economy, start businesses, and pay taxes. I assume you have Chinese restaurants in your Maine town?

1:17 [Comment From Pedro Bravo: ] Hi Darrell, This is Pedro from the Peruvian Embassy here in DC. Most polls indicate a strong support for the Arizona law across the country. Do you think that the Obama administration has made the correct political calculations so that the democrats will not to be affected in the next elections?

1:18 Darrell: The administration's decision to sue Arizona certainly is risky for Democrats running for re-election from border states. Those are the areas that feel most intensely about border security and the people most likely to disagree with the lawsuit.

1:19 [Comment From Ming: ] How would a reframing of the immigration debate with an emphasis on the contributions of immigrants, rather than their cost to society, affect the possibilities for reform?

1:21 Darrell: Right now, Americans see the costs of illegal immigration as being broad while the benefits are concentrated. In that public opinion climate, it is virtually impossible to pass comprehensive reform. In my book, I suggest ways that immigration costs are more narrow than many believe and the benefits are more widespread. Even illegal immigrants pay sales taxes when they purchase goods, property taxes when they buy or rent homes, and income taxes when they take jobs.

1:22 [Comment From Amy Bess: ] In light of the challenges of passing comprehensive immigration reform soon, what are your thoughts on promoting critical stand-alone issues and legislation such as the Dream Act?

1:24 Darrell: There is popular support for increasing H-1b visas and for legislation such as the Dream Act. Those are the most popular parts of comprehensive reform. What advocates fear is if these are passed on a stand-alone basis, it will be impossible to enact other parts of immigration reform that are not as popular. That is the dilemma of immigration reform.

1:26 [Comment From Guest: ] How would you respond to claims that immigrants steal jobs from citizens?

1:28 Darrell: The evidence is not very strong for that claim. I don't see a lot of American citizens wanting to bale hay, pick fruit and vegetables, or work as day laborers. American agriculture needs foreign workers to do many of these jobs.

1:28 [Comment From Jeff: ] Can "success" in reducing illegal immigration due to a bad economy be something worth celebrating?

1:30 Darrell: The point is we have reduced illegal immigration. The bad economy certainly is part of that, but the reduction also reflects the greatly enhanced border patrols and the huge expenditures we have made on border security over the past decade. The illegal border crossings have dropped because we made it harder to reach the destination.

1:30 Seung Min Kim: And that's it for us -- thanks for joining us with the great questions and thanks to Darrell for the chat.