Sometimes it is hard to tell when a complex system is broken, but at other times it is perfectly evident. There is much talk and debate about our immigration system. This talk ranges from reasonable and pragmatic to uninformed and xenophobic, but the truth is that very few people understand the system or how bad it is. I want to share a story that hits close to home and highlights the problems plaguing our immigration system.
Like many stories, this tale involves a girl. When I moved to Anchorage in 2004, I met a Russian girl and we dated for a year. Because I was new to Anchorage and had no friends here, I met a lot of her friends, most of whom were Russian-speaking immigrants. Most of them came for school or came with their parents. Over the years, I learned to speak Russian and made many Russian friends. As a result, I have uncommon insight into what people experience while attempting to navigate the U.S. immigration system.
Recently, I attended a going away party for two of these Russian friends. They are hardworking, educated, and recently married. They both came here to study and graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage with accounting degrees; the husband also has an MBA. They were both, until recently, employed by local accounting firms that valued their work. At this point, you may be wondering, where are they going or why are they leaving? Good question. The answer is an arbitrary number: 65,000.
The H-1B visa is a professional worker visa that allows foreigners with specific degrees to work in the United States. It is a very popular visa and it is currently capped at 65,000 per year (with another 20,000 available for people with master's degrees from U.S. colleges). This year, nearly 250,000 people applied for these visas, which meant that all applicants were subject to a random lottery. It is expensive and time-consuming for an employer to sponsor an H-1B visa for an employee. The process usually involves hiring a lawyer, and no guarantee the employee will be chosen in the lottery. Some people argue these workers are taking American jobs or depressing wages, but the truth is, it is cheaper to hire an American citizen. Unfortunately, we have a deficit of American citizens to fill many these jobs. Also, the U.S. government sets minimum wages for these jobs, which are quite high. So the argument about visa holders depressing wages does not hold water either.
Until 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the federal government did not punish employers for hiring people who were willing and able to work in the United States. Today it is a crime for a U.S. employer to hire a worker who is not authorized to work in the United States, and Congress has created an arbitrary system for granting such permission to foreigners. I happen to believe that a business should be able to hire people without asking the government for permission, but the reality is we have developed an immigration and employment system that Kafka would envy.
Let's return to the story of my Russian friends. Both of their employers went through the process, hired a lawyer and paid the fees to apply for an H-1B visa for each of them. Unfortunately, neither one of them were chosen in the random lottery. In effect, the U.S. government said, "Thanks for coming here to study, thanks for spending all the money for your degrees, thanks for working for a while, now please leave, you are lucky people." The government also forbade their employers from hiring the people they want. Because these people literally did not win a lottery, they must leave the United States.
Only a system designed by politicians could be this bad. We have many smart, U.S.-educated, law-abiding foreigners in the U.S. who want nothing more than to use their American education and work. We should not be chasing them away. These people are productive, they pay taxes, they are multi-lingual, and they have kids who are very likely to be just as productive as they are. The immigration system is complex and draconian, but this part is easy to fix. We must eliminate the H-1B cap and let the labor market work. It is not only the right thing to do, it is also the conservative thing to do.
Jeff Landfield is an advocate for immigration reform. He is presently the secretary of the board for the Alaska Institute for Justice. He is also a Republican candidate for the Alaska State Senate, District L.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.