Toward a more holistic approach

July 11, 2016 Anna O. Law
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Immigration reform has proved to be a nettlesome public policy problem for both parties even as everyone agrees that the system is profoundly broken. And in an election year characterized by vitriol and hyperbole on immigration, reform seems especially remote. It does not have to be this way. But in order to make any progress on immigration, the debate must be reframed to include discussion of the broader immigration system.

A well-regulated immigration system not only keeps unwanted people out, it also allows persons who need to come into the country to do so. A serious impediment to badly needed reform is the way we talk about the subject in our national discourse. The focus has been solely on one aspect of immigration, and the rest of the vast and complex immigration system is ignored, thereby dampening support for reform.

Donald Trump’s proposals to build a wall and deport the 11 million undocumented persons in this country is indicative of the misplaced focus on only one aspect of the system. Aside from the proposed Muslim ban, his proposals are aimed squarely at the undocumented population and whether they should stay or go. While it is true that this aspect of the immigration system is the most contentious, it does not serve anyone’s interest to fixate solely on this aspect. This fixation excludes a discussion of other parts of the system and affects our national well-being.

According to the World Bank, foreign tourists coming to the United States in 2015 spent more than $220 billion that went into our economy. Foreign students from all over the world come to study at American schools. Multi-national corporations from Porche to Nestlé to Nokia send their executives back and forth between the United States and their home countries in the course of regular business operations. Educational, cultural, and sports exchanges happen between nations all the time. All of these movements of persons are also part of the U.S. immigration system. How will the Mayo Clinic bring in internationally renown scientists and doctors to help with treatments? How are the Toronto Blue Jays going to play the New York Yankees? How is Cirque du Soleil going to perform in the United States? All of these people traveling to the United States are admitted under the vast nonimmigrant visa system that allows visitors to come to the country for a limited period of time. Nonimmigrant visas do not lead to permanent residence but are vital to the U.S. cultural, sports, and educational life.

Similarly temporary employment visas are crucial to the function and operation of many U.S. businesses. The H-1B temporary employment visa for skilled immigration is an example. There is controversy surrounding that visa. High-tech companies swear they rely on that visa because they cannot find enough domestic talent, and the industry has been clamoring for more visas for years. But there is some evidence that U.S. workers have sometimes been displaced by H-1B foreign workers. Still, the H-1B visas are in such high demand that the numbers are exhausted in a number of days, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has had to resort to a lottery to distribute the limited visas. But that debate has largely been confined to the business and tech communities with not much of it entering into the national political discussion on immigration. 

We know from media framing research that when people perceive that a public policy benefits them (as opposed to another group or worse, an undeserving group), they are more supportive of it. Donald Nelson and Thomas Kinder’s 1996 research suggests that the immigration debate is susceptible to being framed as a “group centric” policy—a policy that is perceived to benefit one specific group of people. For example, affirmative action policy has long been framed as a policy that primarily benefits racial minorities, especially African Americans, when, in fact, white women are the other actual beneficiaries. When an issue is framed as “group centric,” the public tends to think about the group that is perceived to benefit from the policy rather than about the actual policy itself. So instead of talking about how all of us would benefit from reforming the U.S. immigration system, our current rhetoric focuses mostly on what to do with the undocumented population. The discourse also rarely speaks about the employment visa reforms needed.

One quick story reveals what is sorely missing from the “group centric” approach to talking about immigration. It illustrates how the admission of just one individual immigrant turned out to be a major boon to our national economy and the world’s technological advancement. Sergey Mikhaylovich Brin is the Russia-born immigrant and computer scientist who immigrated to the United States at an early age with his parents to escape persecution against Jews. He and his Stanford classmate Larry Page went on to found Google, now a multinational corporation that employs thousands of U.S. workers in this country alone.

Unfortunately, the way that the immigration issue has been framed during the 2016 election cycle has focused almost exclusively on undocumented immigrants, Mexicans in particular, and whether to grant them amnesty rather than how this population might be propping up our economy. As a result, the public is not seeing the positive economic impact of these immigrants, let alone the rest of the immigration system, including the employment and temporary visas. They are not realizing the full range of effects that all aspects of immigration has on our national economy, colleges and universities, and economic and cultural life of the United States. That truncated view of immigration in turn has implications for support of comprehensive immigration reform.

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” we are told at a young age. But in this election cycle, the very words we use to talk about immigration are hurting the nation as we limp along with a broken immigration system that does not serve anyone well.

Anna O. Law holds the Herbert Kurz Chair in Constitutional Rights in the department of political science at City University of New York, Brooklyn College. She teaches and conducts research in the areas of U.S. constitutional law and history and U.S. immigration law and history. She is the author of The Immigration Battle in American Courts (Cambridge 2010). Her current book project is on immigration federalism and slavery from the colonial period to 1882.