Tuesday, November 30, 2004

America's Immigration Problem

Bring us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. - Inscription on the Statue of Liberty.

Whatever happened to the meaning behind that inscription? Long before 9/11, the United States has not been very welcoming of new immigrants, but in the years since that unfortunate event, the prospects for new immigrants to the United States has been absolutely horrific.

Obtaining permanent status (a "green card") in this country can take several years, and usually requires the assistance of a lawyer, and an employer willing to sponsor you. So, most people who come to the United States to work (legally) do so under one of the temporary worker programs (H1B, H2, J1, L1, TN, etc.) while their green card is pending. These programs require the applicant to navigate through a labyrinth of legal paperwork, and do not provide a clear path to permanent status. In fact, the H1 and L1 programs (which most skilled temporary workers enter on) are valid for only 3 years and can only be renewed once. At the end of that 6 year period, if the worker has not obtained permanent status (a "green card") through other means, he/she must pack up and leave.

While a worker on one of these temporary programs is in America, he is treated by the system like an indentured servant. Every time he travels outside the country, he must stand in the "visitors" line at the airport and be subject to a number of humiliating questions and the risk that an immigration officer in a bad mood may choose to deny him entry - and since 9/11, the risk of this has grown substantially. A worker on a temporary program here in America also does not qualify for unemployment insurance: if he loses his job, he is screwed. He has just a few days to find another job (who is willing to sponsor him), or must pull his kids out of school in the middle of their school year, pack up his belongings, and leave the country on short notice.

Another problem is posed for the worker's dependents. Under most programs, the spouses and dependents of the workers are allowed to live here, and go to school here, but are not allowed to work. This causes a ripple effect: the Social Security Administration won't issue a social security card to anyone who is ineligible to work, and since social security numbers in the United States are used for all sorts of things it creates a myriad of problems. Without a social security number, you cannot get a bank account, credit card, credit rating, car loan, or mortgage; and since 9/11, a number of state governments have been requiring applicants for a drivers' license to show their social security card, so it is very difficult to get a driver's license without a social security card. In essence, someone without a social security number is virtually a non-person in America.

So, in short, a person who comes here on a temporary work visa must go through a huge amount of legal paperwork, expose his family to risk, his wife must sacrifice her career and become a virtual non-person for the duration of her husband's stay here, and there is no easy path to permanent status. Does this sound like an appealing lifestyle? I think not.

What bothers me is that the United States is so lax in cracking down on illegal immigrants, and yet at the same time does not provide a straightforward method for people who are here legally on a temporary program to transition to permenent status.

One thing many Americans do not realize is that America's eduction system does not produce enough people trained in science to fill the demand in the marketplace, and for the past several years has depended on importing the necessary talent to fulfil demand. And yet, the American government has cut the quota numbers for the H1B program, and has erected barriers sufficient to deter all but the most determined prospective immigrants.

Another factor that will act to deter immigration is the value of the US dollar. Until recently, the US dollar was strong, but it has weakened considerably against other currencies in the last two years. For instance, when I came to America, the Canadian dollar was worth about 62 cents US. Now, it is 85 cents. As a result, a prospective immigrant to America can now obtain a comparable salary in other countries (Canada, England, etc.) without having to deal with all of the administrative nonsense and jump through all the hoops he would need to here in America.

On the short term, this has already impacted many American ivy-league schools (Harvard, Yale, etc.) that have seen waning demand from foreign students wanting to study there. On the longer term, if this trend is not reversed, it will impact America's competitiveness. In the future, high-paying jobs will go to locales where concentrations of highly skilled workers live, and if the current trends continue, this may cause an outflux of these high-paying jobs from America to other countries (Canada, Europe, China, India, etc.) that better focus on science in their educational systems, and are more welcoming to skilled immigrants.

I hope someone in the US government recognizes this trend before it is too late.