President Trump spent plenty of time on immigration in his State of the Union speech this week. I wish he had spent more time on each of the four pillars he identified and two policy changes he announced – we will move to more talent based immigration, and our reunification visas will focus on the nuclear family. Instead he spent way too much time on the MS-13 gang, the Wall and DACA. I am an immigrant myself and track the job and automation market as a technology analyst and I felt like Rip Van Winkle who wakes up from a long slumber to find a changed world with new terminology. I hope he has a follow-up speech on more substantive immigration matters. And that there he also praises the contributions immigrants have made to this country, like the fact that the majority of US Nobel Prize winners the last couple of years have been immigrants.
In contrast I see equally wild talk on the other side. Like the claim that ALL of those Nobel Prize winners above were immigrants. They were not, starting with Bob Dylan. I also see so many who keep quoting the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty “Give me your tired, your poor…Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….” That’s noble, but our immigrants don’t come on boats anymore. They are entering the workplace with digital calipers on the shop floor, Eagleview and drone technology in the roofing industry and cognitive computing in audit projects. In my recent book on automation, I profiled how machines are transforming every job. I concluded “we are no longer white, blue or brown collar workers – we are all Silicon Collar workers since technology is reshaping all our workplaces”.
Several areas where our immigration needs to reflect the new century:
Our immigration is increasingly disconnected from our labor market
Every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on the state of the job economy. Month after month, for years now, the number of job openings has exceeded 5 million, mostly in trade and blue collar areas. In contrast, we have been producing too many white collar graduates who are struggling to pay off $ 1.5 trillion in student loans. Yet, we have been taking in nearly 3 million (my estimate) immigrants and guest workers a year and I don’t see a pattern to suggest that inflow is aligned with the shortages and surpluses in the incumbent workforce.
We have too many confusing immigration “lanes”
The 3 million a year arrive here through a dizzying array of (over 200) preferences and visas – and many do with no formal paperwork. There is the F1 direct immigrant preference for unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their minor children. Not to be confused with the F-1 Student Visa which has restrictions on when and where you can work. Many F-1 visas get converted to immigrant visas when their employers hire them after graduation. Many of these lanes have not been well monitored. The H1-B visa, the so-called “Genius Visa”, was originally meant for highly specialized skills, PhDs in Astrophysics and such but they mostly got used for much more mainstream software developers. There has been so much abuse of the spousal visa that Congress had to add a specific section about it to the Immigration and Naturalization Act. Then there are diversity lottery and investor visas. And yet in spite of all these lanes, we have in addition millions of undocumented workers. We need a ruthless rationalization of these lanes – with the goal of a smaller yet as productive set of immigrants.
We don’t assimilate our immigrants well
If you decide to apply for US citizenship (immigrants have to wait years to qualify and many stay as “green card” holders before they can apply and many choose not to) you go through a naturalization interview which tests you on English, U.S. history and civics. We should front-end this scrutiny to everyone when they arrive in the US not wait for years till they decide to apply for citizenship. It is disheartening how many do not speak or understand English. Others do not agree with our Constitution or the Amendments. Still others do not have an understanding of our history or our diversity. You should be willing to accept that our country has Hassidic Jews, Mormons and Sikhs among many others. You should be willing to go through our security vetting. Assimilation is a much bigger issue but we need to start by better qualifying our immigrants.
We should expect more from our global partners
As we rethink immigration, we are already getting pummeled around the world. There is no reason for us to feel guilty – over the last couple of decades we have taken in more immigrants and guest workers than all the other rich countries put together. Over the last couple of centuries, our record is even more impressive. I think we have more than earned our right to ask for partners to step up. There is no reason the Syrian refugees should not have ended up in neighboring affluent Arab countries. Religion, culture, cuisine, weather, proximity all pointed to that solution versus a long trek to Germany. Kudos to Germany for stepping up in that instance but we should ask it why it keeps running up trade surpluses year after year. More trade balance would create plenty of jobs elsewhere and stem some of the labor flow. Japan has an aging population, and low birth rate. Cultural objections aside, immigration should be part of the menu there. We always seem to tip toe around that. Countries which have historically sent us lots of labor – Ireland, Philippines, India, China, others – we should ask for some reciprocity. Allow many of our young workers to go there. Sensitive discussions, but absolutely needed as we go forward.
We are a country of immigrants. Immigration should be our core competence. We have allowed that to fray. We got to this mess over decades and it will not change overnight on its own. Let’s do it smart, not out of hostility or out of guilt. Let’s make it a world-class process in line with our world-class economy.
(Cross-posted @ Deal Architect)