Economy needs a rational system

It’s hard to imagine the national immigration debate getting any more polarized than it is already. But that’s just what’s happening — the shouting is getting louder day by day.

Demonstrations and counterdemonstrations. One side screaming “bigot,” the other “anti-American.” And now, with the Justice Department suing Arizona, open warfare between Washington, D.C., and a defiant state.

What’s troubling isn’t just the volume — it’s the seriousness of the charges being leveled. Both sides are starting to see the debate in terms of good vs. evil — “with” the country or “against” it. And it’s getting hard to see how we as a nation can ever hope to compromise on the immigration reform we so badly need.

As someone who works with employers who hire immigrant workers, I see a possible opening. Of course, there are some abusive, bad-apple business owners — people who deliberately hire under the table and exploit their immigrant workers. But the overwhelming majority of employers who rely on immigrants want to be on the right side of the law. These owners of mostly small- to medium-sized businessese see the issue differently. For them, immigration isn’t about good vs. evil. It’s a pragmatic problem that needs a pragmatic solution. They’re looking for allies — civic groups, faith leaders, battle-weary voters and others — to join them in a tempered, rational, solution-minded conversation that could lead to compromise.

Washington understands the importance of immigrant workers better than almost any state in the nation. After all, two essential pillars of the state economy, agriculture and high-tech, could hardly survive without foreign labor.

This isn’t an accident — it’s a consequence of long-term demographic and educational trends that have left gaping holes at the top and bottom of the U.S. labor force. In 1960, half of the native-born men participating in the workforce had dropped out of high school and were doing unskilled work. Today, the figure is less than 10 percent — but we still need lesser-skilled workers to pick cherries and pack apples (and make beds in hotels and bus dishes in restaurants).

Meanwhile, at the other end of the skill ladder, 60 to 70 percent of the students in American computer science and electrical engineering graduate programs are foreign born: the U.S. workforce alone just isn’t yet educated enough to sustain a globally competitive knowledge economy. That’s why we need highly skilled immigrants.

Most important, because immigrants are generally different from U.S. workers — either more or less educated and with different skills — they complement rather than compete with the native-born and help create and sustain jobs for Americans.

The result in Washington state: immigrants account for one in every seven workers. Microsoft, Boeing, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Washington and Washington State University all rely heavily on global talent, both H1B temporary workers and those who have settled here permanently.

As for agriculture, without immigrant labor, Washington growers would have to shut down an estimated 50 percent of their operations. And according to the calculations of the late agricultural economist Jim Holt, the roughly 18,000 immigrants employed in the Washington produce sector sustain some 60,000 non-farm jobs in the surrounding economy.

Immigrants also contribute to the Washington economy with their purchasing power (12 percent of annual spending, according the advocacy group One America), by paying state taxes (an estimated $1.48 billion in 2007), by starting businesses (9.8 percent of total business income) and by revitalizing communities with their hard work and enterprising spirit.

The problem isn’t the immigrants, it’s an immigration system that works so poorly for immigrant workers and U.S. employers alike.

Different industries use different programs and seek different technical policy fixes. But in the end, they all need the same thing from any immigration reform: a better, more streamlined, more user-friendly, more ample visa pipeline to provide the legal workers we’ll need to grow the economy in the years ahead.

This isn’t about good and evil. It isn’t about us vs. them. It’s about keeping U.S. businesses open, keeping Americans on the job and attracting the best and brightest so we as a nation can maintain our edge in an ever more competitive global economy.

Can’t we find our way to a compromise on that, for the good of the state and the nation? Let’s stop the angry shouting and start to talk rationally about it.

Tamar Jacoby is president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of employers advocating immigration reform.

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