shutterstock_72178780Note:  Today’s blog features the oral testimony of Benjamin Johnson, Executive Director of the American Immigration Council before the House of Representatives, Committee of the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security today.

Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today and provide testimony on behalf of the American Immigration Council, a non-profit educational organization that for 25 years has been dedicated to increasing public understanding of immigration law and policy and the role of immigration in American society.

We welcome this hearing as an opportunity to engage in a thoughtful conversation about the role that immigration can and should play in building a 21st century America: one that prospers and grows.  Prosperity is a shared goal that unites us all, and it is an important lens through which to evaluate the vital role immigration plays in our economy today, as well as the need to fix our outdated immigration system.  As we undertake reform to enhance prosperity through immigration, it is critical for us to recognize that skilled immigration encompasses a wide range of individuals with very different educational and occupational backgrounds. And, it is important to realize that very often the best and brightest from around the world come to our shores not only through employment-based channels of immigration, but through family reunification, the admission of refugees and asylees, and can even be found within the current population of unauthorized workers.

In other words, the quest for talent, and the role of immigrants as job creators, entrepreneurs, and innovators, is not an isolated enterprise.  It is and should be an integral component of a broad based, comprehensive immigration reform.

So, what are some of the facts we should consider.  First and foremost, the overwhelming evidence finds that immigrants complement rather than compete with native born workers, and their presence in our workforce has a positive impact on the wages of all workers.  Much of this is due to the fact that we face skill gaps in many areas of our labor force.  This can be seen in the fact that many STEM occupations have an unemployment rate that is more than half that of the national average. In some STEM occupations, the unemployment rate is at one or two percent.  Similarly, an analysis of job openings shows that in STEM fields there are often more vacancies than qualified applicants.  In 2010, at the national level, there were seven job openings in computer occupations for every graduate from a relevant computer major. In high-tech metro areas the demand was even greater: 25 to 1 in San Francisco, 19 to 1 in San Jose, and nearly as large in places like Austin; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Des Moines; Charleston; and Charlotte.

This widespread demand reflects the new reality that high skilled immigration is not just important to the traditional high-tech areas like Silicon Valley. It is a critical issue in cities like San Antonio, Austin, and Houston, TX.  Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Boise, Idaho.  All of these places and many more are building knowledge based economies that need high-skilled workers.

These communities understand the power of attracting and retaining skilled workers and industries, and they know that immigrants are an important part of this equation.  In Michigan, for example, only six percent of the state’s population is foreign-born, but those immigrants founded more than 30% of high-tech companies in the state over the past decade.

This widespread recognition of the important role of immigrants in creating jobs and building communities has led to a surge in welcoming and recruitment campaigns in states like Michigan and cities like Dayton, Detroit, and St. Louis where they are actively seeking to bring more immigrants into their communities.  Unfortunately, these efforts are being frustrated by our immigration system.

As it stands today, our current immigration system simply does not provide the right kinds or the right numbers of visas needed to respond to the legitimate demands of our dynamic economy. High-skilled immigrants face years of waiting for an available visa and an endless array of bureaucratic delays. Immigrant entrepreneurs are almost completely left out of our current system, and immigrants who are enrolled in or graduates from U.S. universities are increasingly being recruited to other countries where immigration processes are far more welcoming.

Reforms to our immigration system must reflect the needs of both workers and employers, and should address both permanent and temporary channels of immigration. The goal must be to create a nimble and efficient system that responds in real-time to the needs of the market by giving employers the ability to fill positions quickly with workers who are protected from exploitation. Reforms should also provide ample opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs to spur innovation, job creation, and economic growth for local communities and for the nation as a whole.  Moreover, these reforms should not be made at the expense of other priorities or other values.  For instance, efforts to expand employment based immigration by reducing existing family-based immigration are short-sighted and self-defeating.  The fact is that family-based immigrants contribute to the economy, support working family members, and are important contributors to the phenomenon of immigrant entrepreneurship.

For me, the bottom line is this.

The United States has created the most dynamic, most flexible, most creative workforce the world has ever seen, and immigrants have always been a critical part of our success.  The importance of reforming our system—all aspects of it—to further our prosperity cannot be overstated.  We owe it to our future to create a system that is good for business, good for workers, and good for families.

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