Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Immigration Limited to Work Skills Undermines Immigrant Integration

Guest blogger: Rebecca Dames, second-year law student, University of San Francisco

Last week Mark Zuckerberg announced FWD.us, a bipartisan political advocacy group, which seeks to impact comprehensive immigration reform to allow for the hiring of the “best and brightest.” The group’s focus is on training and attracting the best talent in a modern economy primarily based upon knowledge and ideas. One of the problems identified by the group is that the allotted number of visas for the high-tech industry is reached in a matter of days following the opening of the application process. It also recognizes that Dreamers – undocumented immigrants brought here as children and educated here in America – lack a pathway to citizenship. There is no denying that the visa system as a whole is out of line with America’s economic needs, but Congress must not forget that family immigration promotes America’s overarching goal of immigrant integration.

Zuckerberg recognizes graduate students in math and science, the talented entrepreneurs, and the bright, undocumented middle school student he recently taught. The DREAM Act should be included in any immigration reform bill to benefit those undocumented immigrants who were brought here as young children. But what about the parents of Dreamers who often work several jobs to make their children’s dreams possible? ICE has arrested parents of Dreamers who received deferred action under DACA. While FWD.us seems to support the DREAM Act and broader pathways to citizenship for those in the country, Congress may become distracted and fixate primarily on employment-based visas. By focusing the immigration system on worker skills, we will fragment families and undermine immigrant integration.

The Gang of Eight’s anticipated immigration bill will likely prioritize work skills rather than family migration. No separate pathway to citizenship will be created for those without legal status currently in the country – including both Dreamers and their families. Instead, the anticipated legislation will focus on merit-based visas that require the 11 million undocumented immigrants to fit into a worker category plus meet many additional requirements.

The primary goal of the anticipated legislation seems to be upholding the current system before shifting to a merit-based system. Undocumented immigrants present in the country will be placed at the back of the line with no pathway to citizenship. The legislation will eliminate the backlog of legal applicants by admitting immigrants awaiting a green card in another country over the next decade. Only then – after ten years – will the undocumented immigrants currently here be considered for one of the 138,000 annual merit-based visas.

Undocumented immigrants must fit into one of three categories: high-skilled workers in technology and science, mid-range skills for white-collar jobs, or a low-wage worker. No separate pathway to citizenship will be created. The result is that undocumented immigrants will have to wait 13 years before applying to become a citizen in addition to falling into one of the merit-based categories, learning English, maintaining good moral character, remaining employed for ten years, plus other requirements. The bill reportedly will include work authorization for undocumented immigrants but essentially places people into legal limbo without a pathway to citizenship.

By shifting the current focus of the immigration system from family ties to worker-based categories, Congress will change the nation’s priority from immigrant integration to meeting employer demands. Family immigration strengthens social and community bonds and helps to reinforce the support networks essential to America’s prosperity. Merit-based categories extract individuals from their social and familial ties and view immigrants as isolated people filling pre-determined job quotas.

At the same time that preference is given to workers, Congress is unlikely to introduce stronger protections against exploitation by employers. Zuckerberg advocates primarily for workers in the knowledge industry, but Zuckerberg as well as high-skilled tech employees operate from a position of privilege. America’s economy also requires lower-skilled workers, and 58 percent of job gains in the past three years have been limited to low-wage sectors traditionally occupied by immigrant workers. Further, these sectors are more likely to experience wage and hour violations, health and safety violations, work-related injuries, and discrimination, but many immigrants fear losing their job if they report these issues.

The visibility of FWD.us and its targeted efforts are a great way to further the conversation about immigration reform, but policy ideas should not end with a merit-based system. Immigrant integration strengthens U.S. communities and requires a pathway to citizenship beyond the myopic consideration of a person’s skill set.  



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