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Immigration Reform Is Not A Zero Sum Game

Tomorrow, the House of Representatives will vote on Republicans’ first post-election attempt at pro-immigration reform. But their bill, the STEM Jobs Act (H.R. 6429), sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, eliminates as many visas as it creates. Worse, it uses the illusion of immigration reform to actually decrease immigration. If the GOP wants to rehabilitate its immigration image, it should not begin by creating winners and losers -- and this bill creates many more losers than winners.

The bill grants 55,000 green cards to college graduates of U.S. universities with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- the STEM fields. But it simultaneously eliminates the same number of green cards under the Diversity Visa Program, which awards visas mainly to low-skilled immigrants from underrepresented countries -- mostly in Africa.

If this bill passes, it would create a dangerous precedent that GOP-sponsored immigration reform means eliminating visas for the less educated to give to the highly educated. Such a false choice will doom immigration reform by making America’s immigration system even more discriminatory and restricting avenues for legal immigration -- which inevitably leads to more of the illegal kind.

This legislation is even worse than a trade. It actually would reduce legal immigration overall. Last year, the United States graduated just 30,000 foreign-born doctorate and master’s degree students in STEM fields, which means if you assume 75 percent apply, less than half the total number of visas will be used. Because the bill forbids the unused visas from being used in other categories or from being rolled over after 2014, it actually results in a huge reduction in immigration over time.

Over the past few years, anti-immigration advocates have begun to target low-skilled immigration for elimination and suggest it could be replaced with high-skilled. The Heritage Foundation, NumbersUSA, and many politicians have proposed eliminating the main legal avenues low-skilled immigrants have to enter: certain family-based immigration and the diversity visa. Just this week, former-Congresswoman Heather Wilson (R-NM) argued in The Washington Times for “a national merit selection” to replace laws based on “family relationship” and a “lottery system” (i.e. the diversity visa).

Rep. Smith’s STEM bill is the first attempt to implement this policy change. The bill is a foot in the door toward eliminating other green card categories that allow lower-skilled workers to legally enter the U.S. With comprehensive immigration reform in the works, this bill is worse than a distraction. It would reduce legal immigration and demonstrate pro-immigration congressmen are willing to trade current immigration categories and low-skilled immigrants for wealthier immigrants. Now is no time to allow the anti-immigration forces in Congress to sense blood in the water.

What makes this issue so critical is the low skilled have so few options under the current system. From Mexico, for example, only 3 percent of low-skilled legal workers enter through the employer-based green card system because only 5,000 are available. This means Mexican low-skilled workers must rely on family-based visas. For diversity visa beneficiaries, the situation is even worse. Since they are already under-represented in America’s immigrant pool, few have relatives to sponsor them for green cards. If the diversity visa was eliminated, these immigrant's only legal pathway to the United States would be gone.

But this is exactly what certain congressmen want: the progressive elimination of legal means for low-skilled workers to enter the United States  It might seem arbitrary to allocate visas to the millions who want them through a lottery or based on the fact their brother or sister immigrated here -- and it is -- but unless Congress wants to create other accessible avenues for these types of workers, these systems should stay.

After his bill failed in September, Rep. Smith made it more palatable. New sections would expand the V Visa program to reduces the wait for spouses and children of permanent residents to receive green cards from three years to one. Yet even here, the language creates a new unnecessary restriction: it rescinds the current V Visa work authorization for spouses. Why would any member of Congress concerned about having self-sufficient immigrants remove their ability to work?

Even the section on STEM workers contains objectionable provisions. It would require the Department of Homeland Security to post on the internet the names and locations of employers who hire these immigrants, potentially making them targets for harassment. This unnecessarily violates employer privacy and could keep many from applying. Pro-immigration reform should protect the privacy of both immigrants and their employers, not place a scarlet letter on them.

Immigration is not a zero-sum game. No one needs to lose when America attracts world-class talent to settle here. The bipartisan agreement that high-skilled immigration is a good thing should not obscure the benefits low-skilled immigration brings. The STEM Jobs Act presents America with a false choice and symbolizes the wrong way forward on immigration reform.