Give a little, get a little


It is a given that the United States immigration reform cannot please everyone and that ongoing attempts to bring in the most sweeping changes in 30 years may impress Indian outsourcing companies least of all. They predict the loss of at least one percentage point in direct profits as well as other collateral damage.

Foreign siblings and married children of US residents won’t like the shift of immigrant visa availability away from family reunification to merit-based assessments. American enterprise gurus will complain US jobseekers are penalised by the planned generous provision of work visas. Sections of the Republican Party will lament that the US is rewarding an estimated 11 million unauthorised immigrants for an illegal act.

Naysayers of every stripe will busily go about their business in the next six months. This period will determine whether or not the bipartisan immigration reform Bill tabled in the US Senate on April 17 has any possibility of becoming law.

There is a good chance, but no guarantee it will. Immigration is an especially touchy issue in 21st century America, even more so now perhaps than in other rich countries. This is not just a paradox; it is a contradiction. It is, as Marco Rubio, the fresh-faced 41-year-old Cuban-American Republican senator, has said, also a tragedy. “It’s tragic that a nation of immigrants remains divided on the issue of immigration,” said the senator, who is part of the so-called ‘Gang of Eight’ that cobbled together the 840-page Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.

In an attempt to reach across the divide, they have put a smorgasbord on the table. The Bill has something for everyone: protection for domestic job seekers; reassurance for the trade unions; ambitious and expensive security measures along the 3,000-km border with Mexico to placate hardline Republicans; the chance for American companies to recruit highly-skilled foreign workers and for American farmers and ranchers to legally hire unskilled foreign labour; the promise of cash or competence (or both) coming into the US through foreign entrepreneurs.

Consider some of the proposals:
Raising the annual cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 110,000 and increasing the additional allotment for STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) graduates from 20,000 to 25,000. Over time, letting the overall cap nearly triple to 180,000. Letting limits fluctuate — handing out more visas when times are good

Creating an estimated 220,000 new green cards for people with exceptional work skills, including entertainers, scientists and professors

Making it easier for foreign masters or doctoral STEM students to stay on and work in the US

Having a start-up visa for foreign entrepreneurs, as do the UK, Chile and (very recently) Canada

Clearing the backlog of more than four million people around the world who have applied for family-based visas

Providing a 13-year pathway to citizenship for 11 million unauthorised immigrants if they can prove they were in the US before December 31, 2011, pay their fines, stay clear of felonies and learn civics and English There is a flip side, of course, particularly for Indian IT companies. In exchange for letting visa numbers skyrocket, the US will prevent the undercutting of American salaries by requiring that H-1B workers be paid more. It will also protect the domestic jobs market by imposing fees of $10,000 per employee if a big company wants more than half its staff to be on H-1B visas. And from 2014, new H-1B visas will not be available to large firms where guest workers constitute more than 75% of staff.

So too, the elimination of 70,000 green cards reserved for brothers, sisters and adult married children of US residents. Some might call it hard-hearted but surely merit-based green cards are more appropriate than extended family reunification schemes in the age of Skype, Facebook, iMessage, Facetime and email? It is, as Americans say, a proposal that gives a little to get a little. So it has an unwieldy title and this grandiose objective at its outset: ‘As a nation founded, built and sustained by immigrants we also have a responsibility to harness the power of that tradition…’

But it is actually all about those basic drivers of change — domestic politics and money. For, despite the rancorous scraps that pass for American political debate today, those realities offer the best chance of comprehensive immigration reform. The Republican Party has lost two elections because Asian-Americans and Hispanics (anyone who’s not a WASP really) believe it is, at worst racist, or at best profoundly anti-immigration.

The presence of Rubio and four other Republican senators in the ‘Gang of Eight’ underlines how important immigration reform has become to their party’s political prospects. Even sections of the irrational, conspiracy-mongering Tea Party are talking with sane deliberation and the reformist zeal has survived renewed suspicion of immigration after the Boston Marathon explosions. In November’s presidential election, 71% Hispanics and 85% Indian-Americans voted for Barack Obama. As Rubio, who is widely expected to make a bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, acidly points out, “they might agree with your tax policy but if they think you’re going to deport their grandmother, they won’t vote for you.”

Politically self-serving? Perhaps, but that’s patriotism in the way described by Calvin Coolidge, the Republican lawyer who went on to become president: Looking out for yourself by looking out for your country. The Bill embodies this by addressing everything and everyone. Thereby, of course, it pleases no one, but may perhaps displease too few to perish before it remakes the American dream.