Comprehensive (as opposed to piecemeal) immigration reform would require a drastic overhaul of the statutory basis for immigration law, and it would require the support of both houses of Congress. At the very least, a comprehensive immigration reform bill would need to address (i) long-term legal status for undocumented immigrants; (ii) border security; (iii) the H-1B visa program; and (iv) permanent residency based on a STEM degree.

Legal Status for Undocumented Immigrants in the US

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States — no other nation hosts such a large number. The question of what to do with these immigrants (deport them, tolerate them, give them green cards, or allow them to seek citizenship) has become a hot political issue, especially on the question of citizenship, ever since it became clear that recent immigrants who become citizens overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

As a consequence, Democrats such as Obama are generally more favorable to providing these immigrants with a “road map to citizenship”, while Republicans such as Trump often seek to block even green card holders from obtaining citizenship (and therefore voting rights). The divided nature of the US government ensures that resolving this issue will be a challenge.

Border Security

In tandem with the question of what do do with 11 million undocumented immigrants is the question of how to secure the US border, especially the southern border with Mexico. Although some voices call for “open borders”, this idea is unlikely to win broad political consensus any time soon. Both political parties agree on the need for border control — the differences lie in what type of controls they want and how easy they want to make it to immigrate legally.

Realistically, border security will likely be used as a political football by the Republicans — any compromises with the Democratic agenda in other areas would have to be compensated by a corresponding compromise allowing for increased border security. These compromises might not even include completion of Trump’s border wall, since it is widely whispered that the wall does little to stop or deter illegal immigration, but is rather more of a political showpeice.

H-1B Reform

Over the years, the H-1B visa has been a boon to the US economy that much of the US seems oblivious to. While other countries are complaining of the exodus of their highly skilled laborers to the US and other countries, many in the US complain that employment-seeking immigrants “come over here and take our jobs.” The flaw in this reasoning is that jobs are not a zero-sum game. Elon Musk, for example, took a job — and created thousands more.

The Trump administration has been more hostile to the H-1B visa than any other administration. The Biden administration, by contrast, is leaving many with the impression that it will treat the H-1B visa even more favorably than the Obama administration did. At this point, all we can do is wait and see.

H-1B Quotas

The most obvious reform to the H-1B program is to increase the current quota of 65,000 visas per year to over a hundred thousand, or perhaps even several hundred thousand. As a compromise, the quota could be adjusted each year within a predetermined range based on the US unemployment rate. This increase would be designed to attract STEM workers, and it could apply even if the proposed STEM visa (see below) becomes law.

Permanent Residency for STEM Workers

The US labor force, like the labor forces of most nations, suffers from a chronic shortage of STEM-trained workers and entrepreneurs. The word “shortage” is perhaps misleading, however, since no amount of STEM-trained entrepreneurs will ever be enough — more is always better. The proposed new STEM visa, if it is actually implemented, could represent one of the greatest innovations in immigration law ever conceived of.

One way in which a STEM visa would differ from the H-1B visa is green card availability. Although H-1B visa holders are allowed to apply for green cards, the H-1B itself does not lead to permanent residence. Most H-1B applicants seeking green cards apply under the EB visa program, which is plagued with low quotas and long backlogs.

By contrast, under the proposed STEM visa, a worker would be able to obtain a green card directly from STEM visa status. In addition, under current proposals any STEM visa quota would not be subtracted from the numbers available for other types of visas such as the H-1B, but would add to the total number of skilled workers who are eligible to enter the US.

Just the Tip of the Iceberg

The foregoing is a brief description of four of our nation’s most salient immigration reform needs. Ultimately, however, it is only the beginning of what needs to be considered for a comprehensive immigration reform package. Whether comprehensive immigration reform happens any time soon, and what it will look like when it does happen, is largely up to Congress, the makeup of which is largely dependent on the US electorate.

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