Obama and Romney must link economy, immigration

Last week, Obama and Romney gave dueling speeches on the economy. This week, it was immigration. The two topics are very much related. The candidates should focus on that.

Larry Downing/REUTERS
Unemployed Latino immigrants line up on a winter day for jobs at a parking lot in Falls Church, Virginia.

In recent days, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have played to “the Hispanic vote,” each offering plans on how to deal with illegal immigration. Largely unsaid is how their ideas would affect jobs and create economic growth.

Immigration is closely linked to the economy, especially when the jobless rate is 8.2 percent. Many employers, for example, cut costs by hiring illegal migrants at below minimum wage. Some high-tech industries are short of skilled workers that they could find overseas.

And President Obama’s move to grant work permits to many young illegal migrants will provide more competition for scarce jobs sought by less-educated Americans.

Yet with the retirement of baby boomers in coming years, there will be a huge demographic gap in the labor force. That will require more immigrants, not fewer.

Then there are the intangibles, such as how migrants create jobs by being entrepreneurial or how they bring ideas to science and technology or to fashion and food, creating investment. Between 1995 and 2005, immigrants were key founders in more than a quarter of all new engineering and technology firms in the US.

Up to now, the campaign debate has largely kept immigration and the economy as separate issues. And the political clash over immigration focuses too narrowly on border security and possible leniency for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. In speeches this week to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the two candidates made competing promises on how to solve the difficult immigration issues.

It’s time to bring the two topics together for a more rounded view. It will help voters who are concerned about both. In fact, if lawmakers focus on the economics of immigration, then the politics of immigration – playing to ethnic groups or security fears – might lessen.

“As long as immigration is a political issue used by both sides against each other we will never reach the kind of reasonable and balanced approach to it that it needs and deserves,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R) at a breakfast with journalists hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

Immigration is not just about Hispanics. Asians have recently surpassed Hispanics as the most rapidly growing demographic group in the US. And legal Hispanic migrants are likely more affected by illegal immigrants than other ethnic groups in losing out on low-wage jobs. The Hispanic jobless rate is 11 percent, up from 9.7 percent in 2009.

To grow the economy, Washington must reform US immigration policy, mainly by improving the rules and quotas for legal immigrants.

Visas, for example, should be better adjusted to bring in people with needed skills but not for the purpose of undercutting wages in a particular industry. Temporary legal migrants, mainly under agricultural programs, must not take work from American workers. And the US must increase the number of visas for countries that are also a high source of illegal migration, such as Mexico.

Just as the 9/11 attacks focused attention on the relation between border security and illegal migration, the Great Recession has put a spotlight on economics and immigration. The presidential campaign should reflect that.

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