Image from desinole on Flickr
Famous blogger, entrepreneur and technologist @anildash had this interesting factoid to share.
Fact: One of the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence was the king passed laws prohibiting the naturalization of immigrants.
A cursory glance at the text of the Declaration of Independence reveals this oft-forgotten line:
He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.
Translation: One of the major driving factors for Independence was the anti-immigration stance of the King of England. In the light of July 4th and Obama’s recent speech on immigration, the whole issue of immigration merits another discussion. [WSJ Transcript]
For the sake of brevity, I’m skipping past most of the rhetoric and highlighting points from Obama’s speech that are relevant to this discussion. Obama starts by admitting that the immigration system is fundamentally broken.
Immigration reform is no exception. In recent days, the issue of immigration has become once more a source of fresh contention in our country, with the passage of a controversial law in Arizona and the heated reactions we’ve seen across America. Some have rallied behind this new policy. Others have protested and launched boycotts of the state. And everywhere, people have expressed frustration with a system that seems fundamentally broken.
Obama goes on to wax eloquent on some famous immigrants and acknowledge the contributions of the millions of faceless immigrants. He makes it a point to state that immigrants come to this country not only seeking employment, but also end up creating employment for Americans.
Just a few weeks ago, we had an event of small business owners at the White House. And one business owner was a woman named Prachee Devadas who came to this country, became a citizen, and opened up a successful technology services company. When she started, she had just one employee. Today, she employs more than a hundred people. This past April, we held a naturalization ceremony at the White House for members of our armed forces. Even though they were not yet citizens, they had enlisted. One of them was a woman named Perla Ramos — born and raised in Mexico, came to the United States shortly after 9/11, and she eventually joined the Navy. And she said, “I take pride in our flag and the history that forged this great nation and the history we write day by day.”
Immigrants through the generations had to deal with varying degrees of persecution. I’m offended that Obama left out Joel Stein’s dotbuster high school buddies from Edison, NJ.
the ink on our Constitution was barely dry when, amidst conflict, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which placed harsh restrictions of those suspected of having fo reign allegiances. A century ago, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, other European countries were routinely subjected to rank discrimination and ugly stereotypes. Chinese immigrants were held in detention and deported from Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. They didn’t even get to come in.
Illegal immigrants has always been contentious and Obama acknowledges their presence, the challenges they face and the issues their presence poses to the system.
The result is an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The overwhelming majority of these men and women are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Many settle in low-wage sectors of the economy; they work hard, they save, they stay out of trouble. But because they live in the shadows, they’re vulnerable to unscrupulous businesses who pay them less than the minimum wage or violate worker safety rules -– thereby putting companies who follow those rules, and Americans who rightly demand the minimum wage or overtime, at an unfair [dis]advantage. Crimes go unreported as victims and witnesses fear coming forward. And this makes it harder for the police to catch violent criminals and keep neighborhoods safe. And billions in tax revenue are lost each year because many undocumented workers are paid under the table.
While most politicians including Presidents before Obama have acknowledged illegals and suggested ways of dealing with this issue, Obama is one of the few and perhaps the first to acknowledge the impact of illegal immigrants on legal migration, which is one of my primary interests in this speech.
More fundamentally, the presence of so many illegal immigrants makes a mockery of all those who are going through the process of immigrating legally. Indeed, after years of patchwork fixes and ill-conceived revisions, the legal immigration system is as broken as the borders. Backlogs and bureaucracy means the process can take years. While an applicant waits for approval, he or she is often forbidden from visiting the United States –- which means even husbands and wives may be forced to spend many years apart. High fees and the need for lawyers may exclude worthy applicants. And while we provide students from around the world visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities, our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or power a new industry right here in the United States. Instead of training entrepreneurs to create jobs on our shores, we train our competition.
Clearly, one doesn’t need to look any further than the F1 (student visas) and H1B (high tech workers visa) systems which personify all of the issues stated above. Beginning with visa interviews in their native countries, students seeking F1 visas are required to deal with all kinds of bureaucratic minefields, regardless of their academic achievements. Following graduation, from accredited US universities, the same students are required to find a job in 12 months (29 months in some cases) on an OPT, failing which these students trained to become productive members of the American workforce, are forced to return home. This was in good economic times, so needless to say that the number of highly skilled foreign students leaving US shores to return home has increased exponentially during this economic downturn.
Even if they manage to procure that elusive H1B visa, these high-tech workers become tied to a certain organization. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, the power to make and break a person’s life and career can certainly be misused, and is misused in a lot of cases. Even with the right organizations, the H1B worker has to wait nearly a decade to attain permanent residency, until which point they are unable to leave their current employers or start their own businesses. After a decade, if and when a highly skilled legal immigrant manages to procure this evasive permanent residency, they are still second class citizens who lack the right to vote or any such liberties afforded to citizens. Lawyer fees and bureaucratic processes further complicate the naturalization process.
While we all agree that the immigration system is broken, the disagreement seems to be on the steps that need to be taken to fix this. While Obama’s speech acknowledges the problem and offers some solutions, the latter half of the immigration speech skims issues facing skilled immigration and focuses more on the illegal immigration aspect. While tackling illegal immigration is important, keeping highly skilled legal immigrants in this country, stemming reverse brain drain, should also be made a priority. Vivek Wadhwa (@vwadhwa) had an excellent op-ed on this very issue last year.
What are your thoughts on the immigration issue? Use the comments section below and keep it clean.