Another debate, and another disappointing night for the Republicans on the immigration front. We've seen a total of 11 GOP debates to date, and I've yet to hear a candidate demonstrate a deep understanding of our immigration problem. The electorate is crying out for serious reform but all of the GOP hopefuls seem to offer little more than clichés and pandering.
Herman Cain said that we should "promote the current path to citizenship," a plan he also refers to on his web site, which devotes just 581 mostly meaningless words to the topic of immigration.
Newt Gingrich promised an "H-1 visa for every graduate in math, science and engineering," and amnesty for those who have been here for a long time, on the grounds that we shouldn't be "destroying families." Gingrich opined that "we shouldn't be separating people from their families." But in reality, the government never forcibly separates families. There is always the choice for the entire family to return to their country of origin.
Michelle Bachmann and Romney picked a fight with Gingrich on the amnesty point but backed his calls for increased legal immigration, with Romney going so far as to say that he'd "staple a green card to the diploma of anybody that has a degree in math, science, masters degrees, P.H.D.'s." Bachmann cited the late Steve Jobs's plea for a deeper pool of skilled labor to draw from. And Rick Santorum also sang the praises of legal immigrants, citing the hackneyed "shining city on the hill" imagery, while improbably postulating that legal immigrants were responsible for a "huge amount" of U.S. job creation.
A sharp moderator might have asked: American college graduates are facing the bleakest job prospects in decades, how would giving easier access to the U.S. labor pool help them? Or simply, how does increasing legal immigration help solve our unemployment crisis? But Wolf Blitzer, whom Herman Cain once called "Blitz," didn't go there.
Do we need to find ways to encourage more American students to major in the hard sciences rather than the soft ones? Absolutely. But "stapling green cards to diplomas" at a time of huge unemployment and underemployment is just a way to perpetuate the skills gap permanently. The reality is that corporate America is always going to bellyache that there aren't enough skilled workers, even if legal immigration were increased tenfold. They want the largest, cheapest possible pool of labor and the largest pool of potential consumers. Policy should be set to benefit citizens not corporations.
There were the usual paeans about "securing the border," but no candidate was willing to admit that about half of our illegal immigrant population arrived here legally with visas. There was also no acknowledgement that we just experienced a record-setting decade of immigration, in which nearly 14 million migrants settled here during a decade of negative job growth.
Economists are nearly unanimous in their belief that we have a long-term, structural unemployment problem but again, none of the candidates made a connection between this crisis and the need to rethink legal immigration and work visas.
The candidates are obviously playing it safe and trying to carve out what they perceive to be middle ground on the issue: for legal immigration and against illegal immigration. Whether this will help them court Latino voters is an open question, but I have to wonder who is advising them on immigration policy? If they aren't even aware that visa abuse represents a huge chunk of the illegal immigration problem, and that a significant slice of "legal immigrants" were able to regularize their status by gaming the immigration system or through outright fraud, then they have no hope of making a dent in the problem if they are elected.