CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Immigration reform is all the rage, as a quick look at any daily newspaper or news broadcast will tell you. The debate has properly focused on providing the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in America with a shot at citizenship. But broad reform, if it is to enjoy popular support, must also be to the benefit of the nation at large, and include improvements to employment-based visas and green cards that make it possible to attract and keep highly skilled workers in technology, medical and educational fields, among others.
For the first time since 2008, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service last week reached the statutory H-1B cap of 65,000, plus another 20,000 foreign nationals holding a master's or higher degree from U.S. universities, for fiscal year (FY) 2014. On its surface, this is good news for everyone -- employers, skilled foreign workers, and our economic recovery -- as the H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows U.S. companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations requiring theoretical or technical expertise such as architecture, engineering, mathematics, science and medicine.
Under this visa, a U.S. company can employ a foreign worker for up to six years, and an H-1B holder, uniquely, can have legal immigration intent (apply for and obtain the green card) while still holding the visa. Recently, however, the legal employment-based immigration process has backlogged to such an extent that it now takes many years for skilled professional applicants from certain countries to obtain green cards -- years in which frustration and increasing opportunities for skilled workers elsewhere have led many to take their skills to nations that place fewer barriers on obtaining permanent status.
Reform of the H-1B visa system and a substantial increase in the present low ceiling, along with the many other necessary, long-overdue, reforms of our antiquated and hopelessly bureaucratic immigration system, are what negotiators call a "win-win" situation. Employers win, skilled immigrant workers win, lesser skilled immigrants and their children win, and the nation itself wins.
In addition, passage of The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a federal bill aimed at providing immigration relief to undocumented students, would grant as many as 1.9 million young people access to legal residency and limited forms of federal financial aid -- thus removing legal and economic barriers to higher education and increasing the likelihood that they will become full contributing members of our society and an integral part of our national future.
No less moderate a politician than Lyndon Johnson once commented that "our land flourished because it was fed from so many sources -- because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples." The individuals and families who come into the Immigration Clinic at the West Virginia University College of Law almost daily, for example, are almost without exception hardworking, ambitious, family-oriented people who see this country as a beacon of hope and opportunity and who, if allowed to remain here, would inevitably become patriotic, law-abiding citizens.
My own parents were among them. They came to this country in 1938, already in their 30s, as refugees from Hitler, without a penny in their pocket or a syllable of spoken English. In one generation, they raised a son who --- this is not bragging, only testimony -- became a Harvard English professor, a widely published writer, and now, blessedly, a law professor at WVU. Nor is that only my story.
At this moment of long-overdue national debate, there are several logical, necessary and eminently practical reforms our government should take: