If there is one point about immigration above controversy, the cliché goes, it is the need for more high-skilled immigrants. Apploi CEO Adam Lewis called lifting the 65,000 per year cap on H-1B visas, which give work authorization to foreigners in “specialty” occupations, “an immigration fix we can agree on”; the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh called skilled immigration “the new common ground in the reform debate.”
Somebody forgot to tell Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who has led the fight against expansive immigration legislation during the Obama era. He has not just opposed amnesty, as most Republicans have. He has spoken out against the new visas in the Gang of Eight bill, including a higher cap on H-1B and other guest workers.
Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley hasn’t gotten the memo either. “Somewhere along the line, the H-1B program got side-tracked,” he said in a statement last May. “The program was never meant to replace qualified American workers, but it was instead intended as a means to fill gaps in highly specialized areas of employment.”
Grassley has been arguing for years that H-1B and similar programs are no longer fulfilling this original purpose. In 2007, he made an impolitic observation: “Unfortunately, the H-1B program is so popular that it’s now replacing the U.S. labor force.” He’s been willing to expand the number of available visas, but only if accompanied by reform ensuring that companies make a good-faith effort to hire American workers first.
Many conservatives have feared to go where Sessions and Grassley have traveled. High-skilled immigration doesn’t raise the same issues that low-skilled immigration does. And the latter is most of what America gets. Legal immigration to the U.S. today is primarily a based on family reunification as opposed to skills or potential for employment; illegal immigrants tend to be less skilled relative to the U.S. labor force.
The National Research Council’s exhaustive 1997 study on the subject concluded that recent immigration had raised the United States’ overall economic output, but the aggregate net benefit to the native-born was vanishingly small and overwhelmed by the costs of government transfer payments to the immigrants.
Done correctly, high-skilled immigration can produce economic growth that doesn’t just benefit employers and the immigrants themselves. When the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector made his controversial estimate that the Gang of Eight bill would end up costing taxpayers $6.3 trillion, he was largely referring to entitlement spending that would flow to newly legalized lower-skilled workers.
Moreover, many conservatives and most libertarians dislike talking about high-skilled immigration because the arguments against increasing it sound embarrassingly protectionist. Grover Norquist has contended in these pages that those who favor stricter immigration controls owe more to Samuel Gompers than Ronald Reagan—that skepticism about guest-worker programs is the last gasp of organized labor’s historic immigration restrictionism among today’s unions, which have largely gotten on board with the Democratic Party’s enthusiasm for granting amnesty to illegal immigrants and welcoming millions of additional legal immigrants.
But if we’ve learned anything from recent investigations into crony capitalism, what is pro-business is not always pro-free market. And while many “There shall be open borders” types champion H-1B and the similar L-1 visa programs, such visas do not represent a pure free market in labor. These are in fact government programs subject to political manipulation. If the government has discretion in how it exercises its legitimate authority over who comes and who goes, a prerequisite for national sovereignty, then shouldn’t it exercise such discretion in a way that minimizes the impoverishment of Americans?
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