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Stanford scholars see political hurdles in immigration reform

A glimmer of hope exists that the White House and Congress can come together on immigration reform, say two Stanford experts. One key issue for the tech industry is making H-1B visas more available so talented noncitizens can work in the U.S. But that may be unfair to Latino immigrants, others say.

J. Pat Carter/Associated Press protesters

Immigration activists in Miami in August 2013 call for a route to citizenship for undocumented individuals as immigration debate heats up in Congress.

Overhauling the nation's immigration laws is an area where the White House and Congress may find common ground in the months ahead, say two Stanford professors who study the issue.

But while the political calculus has tilted slightly in favor of key reforms, political science professor Bruce E. Cain said, many obstacles await on any road to agreement between two branches of the federal government that are so often at odds with each other.

For Cain, any new federal immigration reforms should clarify the status of the roughly 11 million undocumented people living in the United States.

"Otherwise, they are vulnerable to exploitation, lacking in critical rights and forced to live a secretive life," Cain said, adding that current immigration law does not account for the labor needs of business and agriculture. On top of this, crossing the border illegally is increasingly dangerous.

"There is a broad consensus that something must be done, but huge political obstacles exist to agreeing on specific measures," he said.

Cain takes a wait-and-see attitude toward the House Republicans' broad set of principles for possible reforms issued last week: "Is it a pre-election ploy or a serious move?"

He expects it will be difficult for the Republicans to push a comprehensive immigration reform bill forward without dividing their party, agitating their activist base and possibly getting off-message for the upcoming primary elections cycle.

"I think it is possible that they will either do nothing or offer some narrower bills until the primaries are over," Cain said.

When GOP presidential candidates for 2016 emerge in the next year or so, the House Republicans might propose a bill to appeal to Latinos, a group they've had trouble with in recent elections, Cain said.

"We are entering the phase where it is less about President Obama and more about the 2014 midterm elections, control of the House and Senate, and the 2016 presidential election," he said.

Wanted: brainpower

In Silicon Valley, federal immigration reform could help attract and retain the best brainpower globally available. Many international students educated at American universities have to return to their native countries because they cannot get visas, and U.S. businesses searching for high-level expertise often find the task of hiring non-citizens time-consuming and difficult.

So making H-1B work visas more available to greater numbers of talented foreigners has bipartisan appeal, Cain said.

"The H-1B visa issue is one that the Republicans could get behind and solve, but the question is whether the Democrats will allow the Republicans to pick off the elements of immigration reform that are safe and politically easy to take on with targeted bills, or continue to insist on a comprehensive bill that paints the Republicans into a corner.  My money is on the second scenario," he said.

Vivek Wadhwa, a technology entrepreneur and fellow at Stanford's Rock Center for Corporate Governance, said that more skilled immigrants could boost the U.S. economy. He points to Kauffman Foundation research that showed that a proposed bill – the Startup Visa – could actually increase the U.S. GDP by more than 1 percent in 10 years.

"Providing green cards to the 1 million skilled immigrants and their family members who are trapped in limbo will free them up to start companies, buy houses, and start investing in America. We are talking about a trillion-dollar economic boost during this decade if reform is done right," said Wadhwa, who, before joining Stanford in 2011, founded two software companies.

Silicon Valley has the most to gain because immigrants have founded nearly half of its startups, he said. "By holding immigrants back, we have been holding back California's economy."

Wadhwa described the House Republicans' endorsement of immigration reform as historic. He interprets this as potential GOP support for the DREAM act, legalization of undocumented individuals and more visas for skilled immigrants.

"What is missing – which the Democrats insist on – is a path to citizenship for everyone. I would like to see this happen, but it is such a contentious issue that it could kill the entire package. So it is best to defer this issue until sometime in the future," he said.

Too often, key members of both political parties have expressed support for immigration reform, but then the year ends with disappointment, he said.

"They have a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I am optimistic again, and hope that we don't end the year with the same defeats," said Wadhwa, who voices grave concerns about U.S. political leadership.

"I hope they begin to act responsibly for the sake of our country," he said.

Ana Raquel Minian, an assistant professor in history who studies the history of the migration of undocumented Mexicans to the United States and the growth of migrant communities, is concerned about discrimination against Latinos.

"Our current immigration system is inhumane and unjust to both U.S. citizens and undocumented migrants," Minian said, adding that even American-born Latinos are often subjected to discrimination because they're viewed as possible "aliens."

She said she believes the federal immigration law is outdated and ill-conceived. "Applicants from countries with more people are not allocated a greater number of visas. China, India, Mexico and the Philippines always have more demand for visas than the ones available."

The rules do not consider America's historic recruitment of workers from certain nations, she said. During World War II, for example, the United States sought Mexicans to work in America on behalf of the war effort.

"The economic, cultural and family ties that workers created in the U.S. did not simply go away when U.S. labor shortages ended and they were no longer recruited," Minian said.

More H-1B visas 'unfair'

Not everyone agrees with the desire to expand H-1B visas.

Minian said she believes that is unfair to bring more skilled workers to this country through H-1B visas while blocking employment of other migrants who have already built families and communities here.

She advocates reforming visa laws so they take into account the size of the particular country's population as well as the pre-existing ties that immigrants have to the United States.

The bigger problem, Minian said, is the "inherent contradiction" that exists between America's genuine demand for labor and the attempts to clamp down on immigration.

"We need to consider the reasons why people are leaving their country and coming here," she said.

The militarization of the border is a grave concern for Minian. When the federal government passed immigration reforms in 1986 that mandated an eventual militarization, more deaths and injuries occurred among people trying to slip into the country.

"Ironically, the militarization of the border also had the exact opposite effect than the one intended – it actually increased the number of undocumented workers who resided in the U.S," said Minian, since the heightened danger of border-crossing led people to settle in the United States permanently rather than risk re-entering from Mexico.

"History should teach us that no unilateral immigration law or border enforcement measure is going to stop Latin Americans from entering into the U.S.," Minian said.

Media Contact

Bruce E. Cain, Political Science: (650) 723-1806, bcain@stanford.edu

Vivek Wadhwa, Rock Center for Corporate Governance: (650) 725-3894, wadhwa@law.stanford.edu

Ana Raquel Minian, History: aminian@stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu