Immigration policy has barely surfaced in the U.S. general election. The larger picture remains contentious—and unavoidably so. How to deal with 12 million illegal immigrants, most of them productive and otherwise law-abiding residents of long standing? How to make the border more secure and how much weight to give that imperfectly attainable goal?
Yet on one critical component of policy—the treatment of highly skilled workers—a strong consensus exists that a more liberal regime is crucial for U.S. economic prospects. President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney agree. Almost everyone who has given the matter a moment of intelligent thought agrees. Yet nothing happens.
It would be hard to exaggerate the lunacy of U.S. rules on skilled immigration. We know of no other advanced economy that skews its policies so severely against the workers in greatest demand. Most countries see themselves as competing to attract that kind of immigrant, recognizing that human capital is an important driver of economic success.
The U.S. compounds the idiocy of its cramped skilled-immigrant quotas with impressive thoroughness. For instance, by law it allocates applications among countries according to a half-baked notion of diversity, rather than according to its own economic needs. Many emigrants from India excel in engineering and other technical skills. Yet India’s quota, small in relation to its pool of outstanding applicants, artificially restricts their numbers.
The U.S. attracts the best students from all over the world to its universities and then deports them soon after they have received degrees. If an immigrant is lucky enough to obtain an H-1B visa—the prized document sought by most foreign graduates arriving to work for a U.S. employer—it can take years (if at all) to win permanent residency.
Cold political calculations by both parties have been holding back the reforms both sides claim to want. House Republicans arranged a floor vote last month on a measure that would have offered more residency visas to immigrants with advanced science, technology, engineering, and math degrees, but set it up to fail by reducing the number of visas overall (which Democrats oppose).
For their part, Democrats think it best to hold the skilled-immigration rules hostage until they can get a more comprehensive agreement (which Republicans tend to resist). We applaud the objective, because we too favor comprehensive reform of the system. But it is time to abandon politically motivated yet economically harmful strategies.
Making progress where the basis for agreement is slender or nonexistent is hard enough, as Washington has proved. Failing to make progress where agreement exists—on a policy issue of surpassing importance—is unforgivable.