In its first hearing of 2013 on immigration reform, Republicans on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee sparred with San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro over the merits of comprehensive immigration reform.
Castro appeared before the committee Feb. 5 to argue that any solution passed by Congress should include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
“I believe that there is a need to reform the entire system,” Castro said.
Castro, whose grandmother immigrated to the United States from Mexico, emerged as a national political figure after his keynote speech at the Democratic National Committee’s convention last September. At the hearing, he acted as a proxy for advocates of a broad solution that binds tighter security with a path to citizenship.
In his prepared remarks, the mayor called for increased security along the borders and in the interior; streamlining the legal immigration process to allow companies to attract high-skilled workers from other countries; and establishing a way for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already residing in the United States to attain citizenship.
Committee members questioned the wisdom of bundling those issues together. Alabama’s Rep. Spencer Bachus said citizenship for illegal immigrants was a “toxic, contentious issue.”
“It’s going to be a much easier lift to solve the problem with highly skilled workers,” Bachus said. “I think we could pass a bill that would take that off the table.”
Along with Castro, the panel included Vivek Wadhwa, an expert on how the current visa process fails to attract and keep high-skilled workers from other countries. Wadhwa, author of “The Immigrant Exodus,” talked about foreign students who study at American universities but find it difficult to remain in the country afterward; he said companies struggle to obtain temporary work visas for foreigners and even if they do, those employees might have to wait a decade to obtain permanent residency. In the meantime, their family members are “held hostage” by not being allowed to work.
“They are forced to live as second-class citizens,” Wadhwa said.
A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Jan. 29 that would focus on increasing the number of temporary H-1B visas allocated to highly-skilled workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
The bill’s overarching intent is to help bring over immigrant workers with high levels of educational attainment to spur growth in the tech sector. But as New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries pointed out, founders of many of the country’s famous Silicon Valley start-up companies (e.g. Yahoo, Google and eBay) came on family-based visas, not employment-based visas.
Castro, an opponent of tackling individual elements of immigration reform with separate bills, had another criticism of the high-skilled-only approach.
“I would also frankly suggest that being able to pick crops under the hot sun for 12, 14 hours a day to do back-breaking work is a kind of skill. Maybe not what we would call a ‘high skill,’ but certainly a skill that many, many folks either do not or cannot do,” he said.
Low-skilled immigrant workers do represent several benefits to the U.S. economy, says Pia Orrenius, a senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
The biggest benefit is that they lower the prices of the goods and services that they produce. Orrenius, who spoke about economic research on immigration at a Feb. 1 seminar hosted by the Population Association of America, said low-skilled immigrant workers make the economy more efficient in several ways: they tend to be geographically mobile and can complement high-skilled workers. In some cases, they take labor-intensive jobs that natives don’t want. However, evidence also suggests that low-skilled immigrant workers, similar to their native counterparts, tend to pay less in taxes than they consume in public resources, such as education and Medicaid. High-skilled workers, on the other hand, represent a net positive in financial costs to the government, Orrenius said.
Republicans on the committee returned to Castro repeatedly about his preference for granting full citizenship, as opposed to a partial solution involving legalization.
“If we can find a solution that is short of a pathway to citizenship, but better than just kicking 12 million people out, why is that not a good solution?” asked Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador.
“That is not in the nation’s best interests,” Castro said. “Would that be better than zero? I wouldn’t disagree with that."