By Lora Ries and Chris Wiesinger
At pivotal points in the nation’s history, immigration reflected an openness to the world and the possibilities of the American future. Current immigration reform initiatives also reflect a vision of the future, largely because the timeline associated with transforming the undocumented into naturalized citizens runs beyond 2025. But that vision is static and lacks optimism because it aims to fix the mistakes of the past instead of building a foundation for the future.
The House of Representatives has key opportunities to shape immigration into something that reflects an optimistic vision of America’s future. Failing to seize these opportunities handicaps the nation’s place in the global economy. In this piece, we address three issues that require a future-orientation.
The first is the Senate bill’s language around digital engagement. The bill explicitly prevents DHS from requiring applicants to submit immigration applications in electronic format until at least 2020. In a world that is increasingly digital and hyper-connected, protecting costly and inefficient paper-based benefit application processes is the equivalent of insisting that elements of the government continue to maintain gas lamps while the rest of the world has switched to electricity. The future of the United States requires continuing to build — and maintain — a leadership role in the digital economy. The stance towards immigrants must reflect this orientation by requiring digital engagement and emphasizing that any immigrant’s future success in the United States depends on digital literacy. The House can make a clear statement about the kinds of immigrants the United States seeks to attract by insisting on, or financially incentivizing, digital engagement.
The second is the bill’s nearly doubling of Border Patrol staff from (an already doubled between 2005 and 2012) 21,394 to approximately 40,000. At a time when government budget deficits test the bounds of sustainability and burden future generations of taxpayers with today’s consumption, the Senate requires funding another 20,000 government jobs, primarily for the southwest border. With a gaping northern border, the ability to fly into the United States and remain long past the terms of a visa, as well as our continuous discovery of tunnels from Mexico, this doubling down on physical border security in a globalized, hyper-connected world is an unwise and ineffective use of scarce resources.
The future of the United States requires border strategies that shift the balance of emphasis from the physical to the digital, and design a world in which illegal border crossings are challenged by immobility in the networked world because, lacking proper digital credentials, the illegal immigrant cannot conduct basic transactions in economic life. The House could address this concern, and make a clear statement about the future of the United States, by re-allocating the funds for the additional southwest border jobs towards initiatives that create digital resilience in programs like SEVIS, E-Verify, and SAVE, and implementing biometric Exit.
The third issue is something missing in the Senate bill. It relates to the changing nature of what it is to work in a hyper-connected, globalized, networked world, and to the no-longer-useful premise that all visitors to the United States seek to immigrate. When it comes to work visas – both low-skilled and high-skilled – the bill continues the current visa structure based on the notion that employment for the purpose of creating value in the United States requires physical presence. But in an economy where value is increasingly created through global digital networks and supply chains, this emphasis ignores the reality that much work is done on conference calls and Web meetings with participants in multiple countries.
U.S. commercial and economic success depends increasingly on such global collaboration, where digital value (design, software or other articulations of logic) can be created anywhere because the machinery of production (keyboards, computers, connections to the Internet) is ubiquitous. Manufacturing of physical products will occur where economics, components, labor supply, and quality can be optimized. Physical interactions, such as face-to-face meetings, conversations and unstructured collaborations enhance networked production of value. What is needed is a simple framework for immigration and border officials to consistently adjudicate and facilitate interactions that benefit from physical presence and require border crossing.
With businesses increasingly focused on defining products and services for this global market, complex and rigid work visa requirements get in the way of creating value. Static job descriptions, labor categorization, and old-world notions of what constitutes “work” or “labor” in visa regulations cause confusion, unnecessary expense, and wasted time. There is little logic in requiring a cumbersome work visa process for physical collaboration in a world where the conversations, thought, and expression that constitute such collaboration can, with some degree of compromised effectiveness, be held through video and other digital forms of communication.
The future of the United States depends on welcoming and harnessing talent from all corners of the world and making it easy for those who seek to create value for U.S. companies without necessarily taking up long-term residence in the United States or committing to immigration. The House could address this concern by crafting future-oriented legislation that allows the individuals who work in these industries to spend a certain amount of time per year in the United States, with a limit that, when exceeded, triggers a requirement for those individuals to file U.S tax returns. If an individual spends a considerable amount of time physically present working in the United States, it makes sense to contribute to the societal infrastructure that enables the earning of that income. Precedence for this practice already exists under “source of income” principles.
The world has moved into a new era in which rapid change is a constant, and the ability to anticipate and adapt is critical to survival. Industries emerge, transform and disappear within short periods of time. Innovation and emerging technologies are changing numerous industry landscapes, including energy, health, and food production. Inevitable demographic shifts in a number of western nations requires the encouragement of immigration, with an emphasis on the digitally savvy who are capable of creating value in an increasingly physical-digital hybrid economy.
The House has an opportunity to shape immigration reform legislation that will set the tone for decades. The tone must be optimistic. On the issue of digital benefit applications, there should be no hesitation to demand a capacity for digital engagement. An imperative towards digital engagement at the outset of immigration reform will determine the character of future waves of immigration and business- or value-creating temporary visits. It will also build a foundation for a more intelligent, modern approach to border security that does not over-rely on “boots on the ground,” and instead allows the U.S. government to enforce its border and immigration policies in the digital network that powers the globe’s economy.
Lora Ries is a Senior Principal at CSC, where she works on Immigration Reform Strategy. Previously, Lora was the Director of Immigration Policy at DHS and Immigration Counsel for the House Judiciary Committee. Chris Wiesinger is Principal Business Solution Architect for CSC’s Border and Immigration Solutions Center of Excellence.