The debate over health care reform was unquestionably ugly. However, it'll look downright genteel compared with the firestorm that will likely follow if Congress decides to move forward on immigration reform this year. For a taste of what it will be like, consider the furor that has ensued over Arizona's anti-illegal immigrant law.
In December I wrote about a proposal introduced by Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) which would, among other things, make it easier for U.S.-educated foreign nationals to get green cards. Doing so would eliminate many of the abuses associated with H-1B visas, by making it harder for employers sponsoring visa holders to exploit them and by putting the focus on highly educated folks who want to permanently settle here rather than on employees of outsourcing companies brought here for short-term assignments.
I've long supported the idea of easing the green card process for people with degrees from American institutions. I'm not the only one. A framework for immigration reform introduced by Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY, head of the Senate's Immigration Subcommittee) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) would award green cards to foreigners who receive a master's degree or PhD in science, technology, engineering or math. As the two politicians wrote in a Washington Post op-ed piece, "It makes no sense to educate the world's future inventors and entrepreneurs and then force them to leave when they are able to contribute to our economy."
Other countries have experimented, with varying degrees of success, with immigration programs designed to fast-track residency for highly skilled workers.Though details will have to be hammered out -- and the devil is always in the details, it's just intuitively a good idea. Perhaps the primary concern, mentioned by Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in a Computerworld story, is the possibility that unscrupulous schools could become "diploma mills" awarding degrees to anyone who can cover the cost of tuition. That could be solved by requiring oversight by and input from groups such as Abet Inc., formerly known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
In addition to easing the green card process for foreign graduates of U.S. universities, the framework also suggests a biometric Social Security card to help prevent unauthorized workers from getting jobs, enhanced border security, and beefed-up interior enforcement efforts aimed at apprehending and deporting criminals. It would also establish a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, a controversial proposal that has stymied previous immigration legislation including a 2007 bill backed by then-President George Bush.
As for my prediction over the ugliness of the debate, check out all the partisan finger-pointing already under way between Republicans, who accuse Democrats of pandering to Hispanic voters and threaten to halt any legislative action, and Democrats, who say they're confident immigration reform can succeed. In fact, Lindsey Graham, the Republican who worked with Schumer on the framework, has withdrawn his support because he says Democrats are neglecting a climate bill in favor of immigration.