Something weird is happening in the U.S. immigration debate — weird, at least, from the perspective of political science on immigration politics. Reforming the legal channels for high-skilled workers should be a snap, politically — but we haven’t gotten it yet. There are large, politically sympathetic business lobbies pushing for change, a population of highly educated workers who (pieces like this notwithstanding) are relatively unsympathetic to the idea immigrants pose an economic threat to them, and essentially no organized opposition to the idea of expanding immigration among this group. This is a Freeman-style recipe under which the pro-immigration business lobby will get what it wants.
High-tech business has been pushing these changes for years. So, why haven’t they happened yet? Paradoxically, precisely because they are so popular.
Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform, who control the Senate floor (even if they do not necessarily command 60 votes), aim to use political sympathy for groups like high-tech businesses to help push through a number of more politically sensitive measures, such as a pathway to citizenship for the presently undocumented. This is wise politically, because it keeps high-tech businesses, the darlings of American political economy, as part of the coalition pushing for a broader reform. It also causes statements like this to be tweeted:
Case was quoting the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who was quoted in an article explaining the dynamic.
But is this true? It depends on how you look at it. That New York Times article, for instance, paints it as if Silicon Valley companies and low-skilled undocumented immigrants are in it together. But they’re not really in it together, exactly. (At least in a narrow reading of both groups’ interests.) The two groups are united behind a bill because it addresses both of their discrete interests. Low-skill undocumented immigrants need to have a way to remain in the United States, come out of the shadows, and continue building their lives in a better way; tech companies need new high-skilled workers to be able to enter legally, they need U.S.-educated foreigners in high-tech fields to be able to stay, and they would also benefit from a startup visa program. These sets of interests are not the same. These interests have been grouped together politically because people who want to get both of them addressed think this is the best way to address both of them.
Counting these policy goals separately, prima facie support for high-skilled provisions is much broader. The border hawk Lamar Smith proposed such a bill last year (though it would have done other, less good things as well), and it passed the House, only to be shelved in the comprehensive-minded Senate. It is easy to imagine why on face such a bill would have so broad support: Pro-business Republicans like the idea, as do pro-business Democrats, or any Democrats who represent districts with large amounts of tech businesses (or who seek to attract them), who rely on Silicon Valley donors, or who are generally interested in improving the economy. For either party, this is an easy thing to support.
So, is it true that “The odds of high-skilled passing without comprehensive is close to zero, and the odds of comprehensive passing without high-skilled passing is close to zero”? The latter is clearly true: It is difficult to imagine a comprehensive bill passing without high-skilled provisions, because such provisions are broadly supported and will not be the ones on which the success of the bill turns. Nobody will be holding out their vote until the high-skilled provisions are removed.
But, can high-skilled not pass without comprehensive reform? This is much less certain. Politically, it is very understandable why high-tech businesses would be saying this: The argument is necessary to make in order to get the current incarnation of the bill that addresses their interests passed. If you want this addressed, you’re going to argue to your supporters that they’ll have to swallow all of comprehensive immigration reform. As a political statement, it’s therefore somewhat necessary.
For now, it seems that tech companies seem to have glommed on to the (largely Democratic) political strategy to get their stuff through as part of a comprehensive bill, and to not push their pieces separately. I’m all for this strategy, but I wonder whether the tech industry will continue to support it if they go unsatisfied this time around.
If they choose not to, it hardly seems crazy to think they’ll succeed. Think about it from their perspective: They have discrete needs that the political system widely supports addressing. A bill of this sort already passed the Republican House. The Democrats, to whom this lobby is generally close, are holding up progress on these provisions in order to improve chances of a comprehensive bill, and so far the lobby has generally resisted pressuring Democrats not to do this. But a comprehensive bill gets harder to pass as the midterm elections approach, meaning that if the push does not succeed in 2013, prospects are dim for reviving it in 2014. If the 2014 midterms follow the usual pattern, the more-conservative midterm electorate will further diminish Democrats’ power, and reduce the appetite in Congress for a comprehensive bill for another two years. In that sense, if you’re the tech industry, you’re waiting until 2017 for the next possibly realistic chance to pass a bill. Do they want to do that? Or do they want to exert their leverage on overall sympathetic Democratic members from the Pacific states and northeast corridor to let a bill move? What if they do, and they fail? Then they just jump on board the next comprehensive push, and the pro-comprehensive camp will be just as happy to have them.
So far, Democrats have been very resistant to letting “their” publicly popular parts of a comprehensive immigration bill stand on their own, for fear of endangering the larger enterprise. (The only real exception to this is the DREAM Act.) Republicans have been much willing to do this (as in the Secure Fence Act), because generally, as a party, they have cared much less about comprehensive immigration reform. To me, it certainly seems possible the tech industry could marshal enough support for their provisions to force their piece of the deal to break off.
“The odds of high-skilled passing without comprehensive is close to zero”? Maybe, but only with the high-skilled immigration lobby’s current strategy of engagement.
Google applauds the immigration reform framework because it improves prospects for the high-skilled.
This, of course, is predictable. A better question might be, who doesn’t support more high-skilled immigration? This is the easiest-to-attain part of immigration reform, politically. You have a politically sympathetic research enterprise very interested in high-skill immigration, and you have sectors of the economy where workers are typically not as sensitive to the idea that foreigners are going to take their jobs. You have a classic Gary Freeman situation in which pro-immigration interests have a real incentive to organize without any real possibility of equally well-organized opposition.
So why hasn’t reform in this area happened yet? Mainly because of the desire for a ‘comprehensive’ bill — that is, something that addresses the huge policy problems that have much more politically difficult policy solutions, along with the issues where there is consensus. This way, the thinking goes, you can cobble together a coalition to pass the politically difficult reforms, by making the reforms with real political momentum and well-organized interests behind them contingent on a larger package. Not to say there are no difficulties with passing a high-skill immigration bill, but they don’t compare to the path to citizenship.
The threat of ‘piecemeal’ reform has always been the idea that it will derail a comprehensive bill. In other words, if we act on things like high-skill immigration, we’ll end up unable to address the true crisis that has mainly to do with unskilled or semi-skilled labor.
But maybe if the comprehensive effort collapses this time, the pressure for ‘piecemeal’ action on this will prevail. Still, it’s useful to remind people that our immigration problems are very broad, and that many high-skill sectors of the economy are at stake in the discussion, in addition to the low end of the labor market.
CATO’s Alex Nowrasteh asks,
From an economic perspective, a decent question. But aside from thinking about more accepting labor immigration policies in the framework of liberal economics, it’s worth asking the question from the perspective of politics, and what this kind of policy might do for US universities.
The British perspective may help. In Britain, there are basically two major constituencies that have a lot of sway in immigration policies, which are business groups and universities. The UK higher ed sector is heavily dependent budget-wise on foreign students, and it views itself as in global competition for those students. So naturally it has been very supportive of policies that provide for broad, automatic labor market access for UK graduates, since it increases the universities’ market appeal. (What this means practically is that people can switch automatically from a student visa to an unsponsored work visa.) Restricting these routes has led to strong protests from universities, which policymakers would rather avoid if they can help it. (Considering the current UK government’s immigration targets, though, they can’t.) In political terms, any future advantages that foreign UK graduates are likely to gain in the immigration system will be there largely as a result of the UK universities’ lobbying, in order to provide a competitive benefit to UK universities.
The biggest difference in the US is that universities are not exactly on the front lines of these arguments in the same way. Notably, there is a large and important ethnic lobby impacting the immigration debate in the US in a way that does not exist in the UK. Still, on the margins of the US debate, major research universities and tech companies are players in advocating for a larger reform that can accommodate the interests of US research. The most proximate reason for a policy favoring STEM grads of US universities is the desire to address the problem of the US “throwing away” people it educates — in other words, preventing brain drain (or, perhaps more accurately, eliminating regulatory obstacles to brain retention). But it’s also interesting to think about whether it helps to keep the education sector on board, advocating for immigration reform, more than a different policy might. Accepting STEM grads from around the world might be most beneficial from the perspective of liberal economics, but favoring US grads for work permits will probably provide US universities extra appeal to foreign students, since a US degree would come with labor market access to a huge economy that foreign students might not otherwise have.