- - Friday, July 13, 2012

When people talk about the problem with immigration, they usually are referring to illegals. It is easy to scapegoat the rule-breakers who escape corrupt countries such as El Salvador and Mexico for a better life in America. But the truth is, the 11 million or 12 million illegals in this country represent just a fraction of the problem. Along with globalization, legal — not illegal — immigration threatens to demolish the American middle class.

While illegal immigrants pose a direct challenge to low-wage earners in America, immigration from countries such as Russia, India, China and Venezuela crowds out job opportunities for America’s middle class. As I write this, our nation is suffering a severe jobs crisis, with unemployment around 8.2 percent. Nearly 20 million Americans struggle every day to find employment. It seems counterintuitive to allow more people to enter the United States and, by default, fill jobs Americans desperately need, but that is exactly what our government has been doing for a long time. According to the Department of Homeland Security, there were 9.1 million immigrant admissions between 2000 and 2009. By law, each of those immigrants is entitled to petition for entry for family members, and the numbers keep skyrocketing, totaling more than 30 million admissions since 1980. Though those immigrants’ entry is lawful, understandable and in the spirit of what makes America such a great magnet, it is devastating to jobless citizens who are left feeling disenfranchised and neglected.

In an era when the nature of economic activity in our nation has shifted from manufacturing to the service industry (banking, construction, hospitality, health care, fast-food chains, computers) immigrants crowd out the existing job seekers. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in June 2011, the United States had 2.118 million unemployed residents with bachelor’s or more advanced degrees. There is no question that a percentage of them are competing with legal immigrants who have similar skill sets.

The threat of unlimited legal immigration to our economy and jobs picture is real and urgent. Consider the example of Russia. According to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 22 percent of Russians — or more than 31 million people — want to leave the country. In the 18-to 24 age group, the number is almost 40 percent. The reasons are corruption, lack of economic opportunity and an increasingly stifling political environment. Imagine for a moment if Russia were our neighbor instead of Mexico. We would have at least 31 million people vying for a chance to come over our border for a new beginning. Clearly, that wouldn’t be sustainable. Whom would we be helping if we allowed all those Russians who want to leave to immigrate to the United States? Certainly not Russia’s leaders, who would become even less motivated to establish good governance. All those creative and highly skilled Russians who want and deserve a better life would create an even more precarious situation for American job seekers with the same creativity and skill sets. Open borders create a lose-lose situation.

If we fail to limit chain immigration, the American middle class will continue to suffer. We cannot afford for conditions to worsen. Currently, the unemployment rate for men between ages 25 and 34 with high school diplomas is 14.4 percent, up from 6.1 percent four years ago. According to professor Ralph Catalano of the University of California at Berkeley, “We are at risk of having a generation of young males who are not well-connected to the labor market and who do not feel strong ownership of community or society because they have not benefited from it.” And when the economy does pick up, employers are ready to hire immigrants for lower wages, thus overlooking native Americans.

Baby boomers also are facing a jobs bust. The Labor Department reports that the average duration of unemployment for a 55- to 64-year-old is 56.6 weeks. Without full-time jobs, older Americans are short on money and afraid of what lies ahead. There are 4 million Americans aged 55 to 64 who cannot find full-time work. This number has doubled in five years, while during this same period, we have allowed 6 million people into the country legally through family reunification.

We must fix the entire immigration system to provide jobs and justice to all involved. Our narrative on immigration needs to shift from nostalgia to how it impacts the economic well-being of America and its citizens.

To that end, I have a simple proposal: Limit the number of legal immigrants by making changes in family-reunification policies, and at the same time loosen the restrictions on tourist and visitor visas. This is compassionate, fair and in America’s interest. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 1.3 million jobs would be created if the U.S. share of the travel market were restored to 2000 levels. In 2000, 50.9 million people visited the United States and produced 18 million jobs. Imagine the economic boom if we added another 10 million visitors per year. Essentially, we would tell the world, “We want you to visit, but we don’t want you to stay.”

As with any society, America’s middle class is the anchor of our liberal democratic system of government. We must preserve our middle class by fixing our broken immigration system.

Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings and author of “Press 2 for English: Fix Immigration, Save America” (Caspian Publishing, 2012).