Immigration Reform: The Charge of the 535

Jun 24, 2013
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 7.42.36 PMWe are in the midst of yet another attempt at immigration reform. The situation in Washington can be summarized with this adaptation of the Charge of the Light Brigade:

Pass a law, pass a law, pass a law onward

Up to Capitol Hill

Rode the 535 (Senators and Representatives)

Forward the Senate

Vote for the law, Harry Reid said

Up to Capitol Hill

Rode the 535


“Forward, the House!”

Was Speaker Boehner dismay’d?

This time the Speaker knows Lose the vote and the GOP will have blunder’d:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to vote and lie:

Up to Capitol Hill

Rode the 535


Business lobbies to right of them,

Labor lobbies to left of them,

The 2014 elections in front of them Lobbysts that begged and thunder’d;

Threw at them, contributions and threats,

Confused, they added amendments but not very well,

Into the jaws of reelection,

Into the mouth of Hell Rode the 535.

Immigration reform seems more likely to pass this time, but we’ve been here before, and may fail yet again. The case for it is overwhelming. Despite high unemployment, the U.S. is critically short of labor and talent in key areas, documented in a paper from the Brookings Institution:

  • Agriculture: Lack of access to workers has led to (1) food processing operations for frozen broccoli and cauliflower moving to Mexico, (2) some of the nation’s most productive farms closing down, and farmers from states like Wisconsin, North Carolina, Maryland, Louisiana, and Washington delaying expansion plans.

  • Healthcare: At a time where increased retirements and new mandatory health insurance promise to dramatically increase the demand for medical care, 30 percent of hospitals are already reporting shortages in specialty services. The shortages of nurses alone are estimated to top 115,000. Eighty percent of hospital CEOs are currently making efforts to increase the number of primary care physicians.

  • Manufacturing: Employers in the manufacturing sector report difficulty filling available high-skilled positions. Even at the height of the recession in 2010, companies reported 227,000 open jobs. Factory owners note that is difficult to bring manufacturing jobs back when they cannot find the talent they need to expand.

  • Technology: Microsoft has 200 employees in its software center in Vancouver because it couldn’t get engineers into the U.S. Google developed its news aggregator outside the U.S. for similar reasons, and companies like ON Semiconductor in Phoenix are revving up their overseas hiring because they cannot find workers in the U.S. The problem is especially acute at the governmental level, where more than half of state governments report difficulty filling vacant IT positions.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of scientists and engineers needed to meet growth and net replacement needs by 2020 is 2.4 million, including 1.4 million in the computer occupations and 525,000 engineers. Yet, only about 39,000 undergrad computer science degrees are awarded annually, and about 500,00 science and engineering degrees in total. About 160,000 of those are received by foreign students, many of whom leave after getting their degrees, because they can’t easily get a visa to stay.

Our immigration policy is rooted in the past and largely ignores our talent needs. The H-1B program is the best example. The quota of 65,000 is an arbitrary number, unrelated to any needs of business. This year the cap was reached within days of the first day of filing of requests and visas will be issued by lottery, which makes the situation completely unpredictable for employers. Employment-based Green Cards are another example — only 7 percent can be issued to nationals of any individual country — effectively equating a major source of talent like India with East Timor and Haiti.

The proposed legislation will address many of these problems, if it passes. It could yet fail or be largely useless because of Labor’s concerns about wages being depressed or the GOP’s insistence on border security. Not to minimize these, but they reflect hypocrisy on both sides. Labor’s concerns ignore the fact that without migrant labor from Mexico the economies of the farm states like California and Georgia would collapse. The GOP’s obsession with border security is an excuse for inaction since complete security can never be achieved.

Let’s hope the 535 can deliver.

On a personal note I’m still recovering from my accident and will be in rehab for several months more. I continue to gain in strength and ability and I have full faith that I will recover in full. Thank you to all for your good wishes and support.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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