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It's not as if America doesn't need these people. American companies are struggling to fill 3.7 million job openings, many of them in science-related fields. Meanwhile, foreign students receive half of all doctorates in such fields, and almost all of them will head home after graduation. (In recent years, the H1-B visa limit was reached within the first few days of filing!) New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls America's immigration policy the single biggest problem facing the economy and argues that our current approach is "national suicide."
It isn't just Canada to which America is losing the best and brightest. Australia, Britain and Singapore are all wooing the world's most talented graduates. And then there are China and India, where many of these graduates come from. As those countries develop economically, new opportunities grow there, and lots of Indians and Chinese decide to go back home. The Beijing government makes a serious effort to recruit many of these people, from recent college graduates to tenured professors at the world's best universities. The evidence is that increasingly it is succeeding.
But none of these broad arguments to reform America's immigration system will make much difference while the partisan standoff remains. Those who have hard-line views on this topic believe that immigration reform must start with taking control of the border through more stringent patrols, more effective fences and wider deportations like those that have been under way for years.
While the ideological battles over immigration persist, something strange has happened on the ground: Mexican immigration to America is slowing to a standstill. The Pew Hispanic Center released a report in April showing that net Mexican migration into the U.S.--those entering minus those going back to Mexico--is now zero and that the number of Mexicans going back might actually now be higher than the number entering. This trend might be partly a product of tougher enforcement, but it is most likely caused by economic weakness in the U.S. coupled with a striking decline in Mexican fertility rates (which is itself caused by more education and opportunities in Mexico).
Whether or not this trend holds, the U.S. has to deal with the workers who are already here. The most sensible solution would be to craft legislation that would deport those who have criminal records and give some kind of legal status to the others. The path to citizenship for these workers should properly be long, placing them behind regular applicants and visa holders, and could take 15 years, during which they would have to pay all their taxes and abide by all laws.
That would allow a real reform of the system. We should sharply reduce the number of legal immigrants who arrive because they are sponsored by a family member. We should expand massively the number who come in because they have skills we need. We should recognize that certain industries do need temporary workers--farms in California, for example--and those industries could set up temporary-worker programs so crops can get picked during harvesting season. Ideally, such a bill would be bipartisan, sponsored by a prominent Democrat and an equally prominent Republican. Naturally, it should have the strong support of the President.