Esther Cepeda: Our immigration neverland
By ESTHER J. CEPEDA
CHICAGO — In a stirring Washington Post column titled "America to immigrants: 'Give me your tired, your poor' but keep your entrepreneurs," Vivek Wadhwa laments the shabby treatment of immigrant business founders due to our ridiculous immigration laws.
Wadhwa, a high-tech entrepreneur himself, cites statistics from a just-released Kauffman Entrepreneurship Foundation survey that shows the proportion of new companies founded by foreign-born individuals is down to 24.3 percent from 25.3 since 2005, prompting the question of whether "the period of unprecedented expansion of immigrant-led entrepreneurship that characterized the 1980s and 1990s has come to a close."
That period may indeed be over and I'll tell you why: When it comes to immigration, Americans freely and lovingly embrace nonsense.
One of the big reasons that these downside statistics about America's unfriendliness toward immigrant entrepreneurs have gained traction in the recent news cycle is because just a few weeks ago, a bill that would have provided permanent resident visas to foreigners who graduated from American universities with advanced degrees in science and technology failed to pass the House of Representatives.
The sticking point: Those new visas would have eliminated the 55,000 green cards allocated to an annual lottery for people in countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.
Nothing against the wonderful lottery people — I'm sure they're all fine additions to our melting pot — but they are unknown quantities. Instead, we're going to tell legal immigrants who've already completed a master's or a Ph.D. in the woefully under-populated fields of science, technology, engineering and math to take their brainpower elsewhere.
On the other side of the immigration-law change spectrum are the organizations seizing upon news coverage of Mitt Romney's stance on DREAM Act-eligible youth as an opportunity to promote the proposed legislation as an economic boon.
According to the Center for American Progress' report "The Economic Benefits of Passing the DREAM Act," if that legislation, in its most recent incarnation, were to pass, it would create a $19 billion boost to the economy every year until 2030. Yes, in this estimation, legalizing 2.1 million young people would add a whole 0.13 percent of our $15 trillion national economy for the next 17 years. Forgive me for not popping open the champagne.
These gains are supposed to be made by "incentivizing higher education." Are you kidding me? The incentives are already sky high. According to the text of H.R. 1842, a recipient of permanent resident status needs only to complete two years of higher education in good standing — but a completed degree is not required. And the student, while not eligible for federal education grants such as Pell Grants, would be eligible for federal work study and student loans. Also, individual states wouldn't be restricted from providing additional financial aid.
I'll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide how much Congress would be asked to increase the $1 billion the U.S. Department of Education allocates annually for the federal work study program to "incentivize" 2.1 more million young people to attend, but not necessarily graduate from, college. And don't forget the potential effects on our nation's current $1 trillion student loan debt.
The terrible irony is that America desperately needs young immigrants with little education as laborers. Last spring, a University of Georgia report projected that 2011 figures will show that the state's economy lost $391 million due to immigration law-related farm labor shortages. And that's just one of many agriculture-driven state economies.
In stark contrast, 53.6 percent of young adults (under the age of 25) with bachelor's degrees — 1.5 million — are currently jobless or underemployed, the highest number in 11 years. And throw this on top: According to the Kauffman Foundation, immigrant entrepreneurs employed about 560,000 workers and generated about $63 billion in sales from 2006 to 2012.
The numbers simply don't add up.
Who in their right mind sends away our most highly educated young people? The ones who possess degrees in the disciplines that U.S.-born students simply don't have interest in — or the chops for.
And who willingly chokes our own farms by not allowing in enough immigrant laborers while, at the same time, letting discussions of the hasn't-passed-in-11-years DREAM Act dominate the immigration portion of the upcoming presidential election?
It's obvious that not only are our immigration laws broken — so is our capacity for common sense.
Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepedawashpost.com.
(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group