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Congress Softens Stance on High-skilled Immigrants

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Thursday, October 20, 2011

We've been hearing a lot about immigration on the campaign trail, most of it based on outdated assumptions and echoing the arguments made when Congress was considering so-called comprehensive immigration reform bills in 2006 and 2007.

But up on Capitol Hill, there appears to be progress -- bipartisan progress, even -- toward changing our immigration laws to reflect current and emerging realities.

From Barack Obama, in campaign rather than governing mode these days, we hear denunciations of Republicans for killing proposals for legalizing illegal immigrants.

This ignores the fact that Democrats didn't move immigration bills when they had control of the House and a supermajority in the Senate. Speaker Nancy Pelosi thought global warming and health care were more important.

As for the Republican presidential candidates, most are calling for construction of an ever-higher border fence and opposing anything with a whiff of amnesty. They're attacking Rick Perry because he opposes the fence in Texas -- it's hard to build one along a river -- and backs in-state tuition for children of illegals in state colleges and universities.

Behind this rhetoric is the assumption that the tide of immigration, legal and illegal, is continuing at a record pace and that illegals are here to stay. But the evidence is that migration from Mexico has slowed to a trickle, and the Census Bureau tells us the number of illegals has declined.

Those trends are likely to continue. As former Mexico Foreign Minister Jorge Casta¤edn explains in his recent book "Manana Forever?," most Mexicans are now in the Walmart middle class or above.

Mexican birth rates plummeted 20 years ago, which means fewer young people will be needing jobs -- and with the U.S. economy struggling, they're not likely to look for them here. Nor are legal immigrants as likely to bring extended family members to the United States.

Tough state laws have induced some illegals to return home, and in Idaho immigrant farm labor is so scarce that the state is hiring out prisoners to harvest crops.

At the same time, it's apparent that the United States needs more high-skill immigrants -- job creators rather than job seekers. The death of Steve Jobs (whose birth father, it turns out, was an immigrant) reminds us that highly talented individuals can be huge national assets.

The response in the House of Representatives has been a bipartisan push for more green card slots for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) graduates of American universities.

One sponsor is Silicon Valley's Zoe Lofgren, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee. Another, who apparently copied much of Lofgren's bill, is Idaho freshman Republican Raul Labrador.

And it appears that the chairman of the full Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith of Texas, is interested. This is noteworthy because Smith has been an implacable opponent of any bill containing legalization or amnesty provisions.

But Smith agrees that it is a travesty not to admit STEM graduates educated at American universities who want to apply their talents in this country.

He does have some concerns. He points out that graduates with doctorates are far more productive than those with just master's degrees. And he cautions that diploma mills could make profits grinding out degrees to foreigners intent on gaming the system.

Lofgren says those concerns are reasonable and that her bill addresses them by limiting it to graduates of research universities designated by the National Science Foundation.

Reaching agreement on such provisions does not seem impossible. "With tweaks to our immigration system," Smith said earlier this month, "we can accommodate those graduates whom American universities and businesses most desire and who are most able to contribute to our economy."

It's not clear whether the Judiciary Committee will act on this or whether a bill will come to the floor of the House, much less the Senate.

But it does appear that serious legislators of both parties are moving toward the kind of reform proposed last year by a bipartisan panel assembled by the Brookings Institution and Duke University's Kenan Institute.

The central thrust is to shift legal immigration slots from family reunification bringing in low-skill workers to high-skill immigrants, as Canada and Australia did years ago.

That's an approach in line with current demographic realities and current national needs. The president and the presidential candidates may not have not caught up with that, but apparently some influential members of Congress have.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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