- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2000

In the final weeks of the 106th Congress, Republicans on Capitol Hill have an opportunity to pass an immigration bill that would have a substantially positive impact on the U.S. economy.

By combining an increase in visas for high-tech workers with a more generous legalization program for many Central Americans already here, the immigration bill would be shrewd politics too, potentially steering many Latino voters in to the Republican camp.

The economic case for the immigration bill are almost beyond dispute. It turns out that one of the biggest impediments to continued prosperity is not a scarcity of oil, but a scarcity of talented and hard-working people. Everywhere I travel, the single most persistent complaint I hear from employers is the need for more workers. Charles Hilton, the owner of six hotels in Panama City, Florida tells me that "we couldn't keep our hotels open if it weren't for immigrants. We still need a lot more."

The labor shortage problem is not a myth made up by greedy employers. Silicon Valley desperately needs more computer technicians, physicists, mathematicians and electrical engineers.

A 1999 study by the Joint Venture in California, estimates that the acute shortage of workers in Silicon Valley costs employers about $3 billion a year.

Meanwhile, in the fast booming Southwest, construction companies cannot fill $12 to $15 an hour jobs. Service industries across the nation complain that they can't find nurses, kitchen help, waiters and waitresses, clerks, maids, home care workers, and auto mechanics.

Anti-immigrant groups, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), are trying to spook the public with stories of Americans losing good jobs if more immigrants gain visas. But years of economic research can't detect much of an impact of immigrants on unemployment or wages for Americans. In some localized markets and in some industries the taxicab market in D.C., for example immigrants do displace Americans. But the flexibility of our labor markets allow fairly rapid adjustments, allowing a person displaced from one job, to quickly snatch up another. Consider this awesome statistic: Over the past 20 years, the U.S. has admitted about 15 million new immigrants. But over that period, the unemployment rate has fallen by almost half.

If anyone thinks closing the gates to immigrants is a good way to protect jobs, take a good look at Europe. Many European nations have become more nativist in recent years, closing their doors to foreign workers. Guess what? These nations typically have unemployment rates twice as high as ours.

Immigrants aren't just doing the grunt work. They also provide technical skills needed in our cutting edge high-technology industries, as well. As many as 1 in every 4 workers in Silicon Valley are foreign-born. I once asked a personnel manager at Hewlett-Packard what would happen if Congress closed the golden gates to new immigrants. "It would bring our semiconductor industry to its knees," he answered without hesitation. In this age of global competition for brain power and talent, we need as many talented foreigners as we can get.

So here's what Congress should do. First, double the number of so-called H1B visas for immigrants with special technical skills that are unavailable in the U.S. labor force. Sen. Spencer Abraham, Michigan Republican, has been pushing for more high-skilled immigrants and he is right. "What's the sense of teaching foreigners in American universities and then not allowing them to work here after we've subsidized their education," he notes. Good question.

Next, we need to start accelerating the citizenship process for many of the immigrants already here. The backlog for U.S. citizen applications now is approaching the 2 million mark. Congress should be encouraging citizenship, not creating every conceivable roadblock to it. Sometimes it seems the INS is a less friendly federal agency than the IRS.

Finally, there are several hundred thousand Central Americans and Eastern Europeans, who long ago fled their war-ravaged countries and sought freedom here. Many of these refugees have been in the U.S. for as many as 20 years working, contributing, and staying out of trouble. But they still haven't gained the legal protections they deserve. They are, for all intents are purposes, Americans, but without the proper paperwork. Republicans could build up a lot of good will with Latinos and other ethnic groups, if they displayed some compassionate conservatism and allowed these Americans in name only to become full-fledged citizens.

Congress can and should get all this done this year. With these changes, we can allow several million aspiring Americans to fulfill their life long dreams. Moreover, we can ensure the immigrants to the U.S. over the next 20 years will be the most talented people ever to come to these shores. That's a proven formula for national greatness. And it could help the GOP win elections too.

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