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Leon Kaye headshot

U.S. Immigration Policy Needs a Massive Rethink

By Leon Kaye

Immigration and innovation have long driven U.S. economic growth, and it's clear those two factors are intertwined and dependent on each other. True, much of the innovation in the U.S. is related to technology, and a majority of the new patents, ideas and investors are foreign-born. But if we are to define the term “innovation” broadly — and let’s face it, just about every corporation or nonprofit loves to hurl that word haphazardly — then innovation is underway in all sectors of the U.S. economy. This includes the immigrants who may not come here to launch the latest Silicon Valley company or enroll in a top university. They are innovating in the sense that they are launching new businesses doing work that no one else wants to do; or they are opening stores and services in neighborhoods in which many Americans would never venture.

Nevertheless, U.S. immigration policy is focused on an outdated model -- one that categorizes people into two groups: those from Mexico and “other than Mexico.” And despite the calls of politicians, including Donald Trump, to get tough on immigration and “build a wall,” the fact is that illegal immigration from Mexico is declining. Stronger immigration enforcement tactics on both sides of the border, along with changes in the U.S. economy, have together caused the Mexican immigrant population in the U.S. to decrease while the repatriation of Mexican nationals has increased.

And despite the hysteria over Syrian refugees coming into the U.S., the plurality of refugees who come to the U.S. to seek asylum are from Burma. According to the Migration Policy Institute, asylum-seekers from Burma outpaced those from Iraq for the first time last year. In fact, last year the number of refugees from Bhutan, with its population of 750,000, was more than triple those from Syria (with an estimated population of over 4.8 million living as refugees).

Meanwhile, illegal immigration from Central America continues to surge. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) considers these people economic migrants. But the reality suggests many of these citizens, especially those under the age of 18, are fleeing violence and crime in the “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. In recent years, the number of apprehensions from those three countries kept pace, and even exceeded, the number of people from Mexico stopped at the borders in 2014.

The CBP launched an aggressive campaign that purports to discourage Central American citizens from entering the U.S., and Mexican authorities are determined to deport them. But so far this year, just about as many Central American citizens as Mexicans have been detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. And when it comes to families and unaccompanied minors, the number of those stopped at the border this year has skyrocketed. A U.S.-funded program trying to improve economic and social conditions in the Northern Triangle has made little difference. And advocates say more immigration judges are needed to cope with, and find and answer for, the ongoing crisis.

The U.S. needs a fairer and more streamlined way to cope with its complicated immigration process. Communication with U.S. citizens are certainly necessary. Even if Trump’s candidacy (or wall) eventually fails, the facts on who is coming in, and why, need to be clearly explained. On that point, plenty of evidence suggests that encouraging high-skilled workers to come to the U.S. is more of an economic and long-term investment boost than a scheme that steals jobs.

Nevertheless, not every immigrant is going to create the next Facebook or Bloom Box, and those workers are important to the economy, too. A fair and transparent system to allow immigrants, including Mexicans, to work in jobs that U.S. nationals are unwilling to do has long been part of this debate. And it is an argument that of course needs to be settled.

But when looking at immigration pragmatically, and not emotionally or even morally, there is a strong business case for admitting refugees into this country. The U.S. has a proud history of accepting those who were discarded and unwanted by other countries -- whether they came from Armenia in the years after the genocide; refugees from post-World War II Europe; or those fleeing Communism and other forms of totalitarian oppression from regions such as Eastern Europe, the Balkans, or Southeast Asia. Now, the U.S. is missing out on an opportunity to accept a new group of citizens who will contribute economically -- and, yes, spiritually and patriotically -- to this country.

In a world that is increasingly reliant on cross-border trade with the emergence of growth areas as diverse as South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, this economy would benefit from welcoming these people — including many Syrian refugees who are living in purgatory with no recognition of their human rights throughout the Levant, Turkey and Europe.

The largest factors explaining America’s immigration mess are not necessarily the immigration laws themselves, but instead, the system's process and structure. More staff, including judges and social workers who can vet why people are fleeing their homes for the U.S., need to be hired, resulting in an investment that will partly solve the current backlog of immigration cases. But our current immigration system is also flawed as it is one designed for the mid-20th century and does not leverage the power and speed of technology.

The Obama administration corralled several agencies to develop a roadmap toward immigration reform that relies on streamlined processes and the use of current technology — which, believe it or not, starts with computers. Such a system, if correctly implemented, would be more transparent, fairer and indeed, Mr. Trump, would go further in keeping those terrorists out. Business, which is far ahead and is far more rational on immigration than government, has an opportunity to use its influence as a force for good on this issue.

Image credit: U.S. Customs and Border Patrol/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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