Update from Washington: Politics of immigration reform bad for business

Kasey S. Pipes

The theory of evolution can be disproved, Henry Adams laughed, by tracing the presidents from Washington to Grant. While unfair to the 18th president, the joke underscores a serious point: Politics in Washington has seemingly gotten worse over time. Perhaps no issue better demonstrates this than immigration reform. This one topic shows how politics often trumps policy in Washington, D.C. As Congress considers legislation to reform our immigration system, a few basic facts should guide the debate. Most important among them, immigration law should be defined not by whether immigrants can enter America, but which ones. As a nation of immigrants, America will always open its door to others. But who gets to enter through those doors remains to be answered. Many other countries around the world shape their immigration rules so that immigrants who can do the most for their economies are allowed to enter first. The logic can’t be refuted: Immigrants should be welcomed based on what they can do, not based on who they are or where they are from. Where other countries offer a high-skilled immigration system, America essentially provides a low-skilled system. Getting a family visa is much easier than getting a high-skilled work visa. As a result, many of the world’s best and brightest young students come to American colleges where they are trained as engineers and scientists only to be kicked out of the country after graduation. And what do these brainiacs do when they return home? They create new products, new businesses and new jobs in their home countries. Fortunately, a consensus is emerging that this policy makes little sense in the 21st century. Recent research from Professors Matthew Slaughter and Gordon Hanson shows that high-skilled immigrants in America have a profound impact on the economy. “One quarter of U.S. high-technology firms established since 1995 have had at least one foreign-born founder,” the scholars found. “These new companies employ 450,000 people and generate more than $50 billion in sales. Immigrants or their children founded 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies.” Simply put, high-skilled immigrants create jobs for Americans. Not only do academic researchers realize this, but so do political leaders on a bipartisan basis. So, if the research confirms it and both parties want it, why is creating a high-skilled immigration system so difficult? One word: politics. Republicans overwhelmingly support expanding high-skilled visas. But they would rather do that and not address other issues like the status of undocumented workers. Meanwhile, Democrats prefer to deal with undocumented workers first and will only consider the high-skilled visa issue as part of a comprehensive immigration package. The result? Politics triumphs over policy. Full disclosure: Our firm represents a coalition of technology companies, including some with Texas operations, that is lobbying in Washington for more high-skilled visas. We are intensely involved in the legislative discussions and believe this could be the moment when the gridlock ends and good policy begins. High-skilled visa reform represents a rich quarry that Congress should mine so that the U.S. economy can grow and create jobs. That would be good policy for America and good news for Texas businesses.

Kasey S. Pipes is co-founder and partner of Corley Pipes, a government relations firm based in Fort Worth with offices in Washington, D.C. He previously served as an adviser to President George W. Bush, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Congresswoman Kay Granger. He can be reached at kasey@corleypipes.com