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Democrats' Dilemma on High-Skilled Immigration Reform

“If there's an attempt to just try and pass high-end, high-tech immigration, guess who will be furious? The Hispanic community,” New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said this week.

“If there's an attempt to just try and pass high-end, high-tech immigration, guess who will be furious? The Hispanic community,” New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said this week. // J. Scott Applewhite/AP

For years, the phrase "immigration reform" has meant two things for Republicans: a contest to see who could be toughest on the 11 million people living in the United States who aren't supposed to be, and a flood of proposals to fortify the nation's borders. For Democrats, the term has meant some form of legalization for undocumented workers and an easier mechanism for getting into the country legally.

That’s still true to a great extent. But in the time since Congress’s last encounter with the issue, business leaders have been raising concerns about a deficit of high-skilled workers. And that’s transforming how the immigration debate is playing out.

The argument for high-skilled immigration reform goes like this: Due to the shortage of scientists and engineers in the United States, Congress must lift the cap on the number of H-1B visas it gives to foreign citizens. Doing so would keep U.S.-educated foreigners from leaving and would attract immigrants to American shores. A rush of outside brainpower would then lead to new technologies that could become the engine for economic growth. Tech companies think this is a no-brainer, and the idea has support from both Republicans and Democrats.

In a world with no competing priorities, H-1B reform would pass easily. But for two political reasons, the change is being held up in Congress.

Senate lawmakers who are most involved with immigration legislation--the so-called Gang of Eight--would prefer to see a comprehensive deal. That's also the position President Obama has taken. The trick lies in corralling enough Republicans to support a total-package process, as opposed to striking a set of smaller agreements. Carving out skilled immigration might lead to an easy bipartisan win, but it would give ammunition to piecemealers and risk fracturing the Gang of Eight

On the Democratic side, the issue is problematic for another reason: Addressing high-skilled immigration alone does nothing to help low-skilled immigrants. 

“If there's an attempt to just try and pass high-end, high-tech immigration, guess who will be furious? The Hispanic community,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a Democratic Gang of Eight member, told tech-industry advocates at a daylong event in Washington Tuesday.

Addressing one type of immigration without the other would be counterproductive for Democrats, who--particularly after 2012’s electoral results showing a shift in minority voting patterns--benefit from the perception of Latinos as a natural constituency for their party.

Another problem for Democrats is union opposition to lifting the cap on high-skilled workers. Organizations representing blue-collar workers, said Schumer, have successfully argued in the past that more high-skilled foreign workers would hurt U.S. citizens’ chances of finding jobs. (It’s not entirely clear how this logic works in the long run; if there were already an abundance of high-skilled U.S. workers, then the STEM deficit wouldn’t be a problem, and Washington wouldn’t be looking abroad to fill the gap. Someday the United States will start graduating more skilled workers, but that's little comfort to tech companies who need labor now.)

The new focus on high-tech immigration therefore sets up a potential showdown between one group emblematic of the Democrats’ industrial legacy and two that are emblematic of its technological and demographic future--groups that are nevertheless themselves at odds.

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