– by Bill MacKenzie
“It’s the economy, stupid,” a strategist famously stated in Bill Clinton’s successful campaign for the presidency in 1996. That’s still true today when making the case for comprehensive federal immigration reform that would cover both legal and undocumented immigrants in Hillsboro.
A more practical guest-worker program would ensure a dependable supply of labor for Hillsboro’s agricultural industry, which now struggles with a costly and unwieldy federal program allowing foreign nationals in for temporary or seasonal agricultural work.
It’s not just farmers and nursery operators who would benefit from an overhaul of the immigration system. Revision of federal laws that unnecessarily restrain the hiring of foreign nationals would also aid Hillsboro’s cluster of technology companies.
Local tech companies use what’s called the H-1B visa program to employ foreign nationals in specialty occupations — such as scientists, engineers or computer programmers — that require theoretical or technical expertise in specialized fields.
Lisa Malloy, an Intel spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., says H-1B workers have consistently represented about 6 percent of the U.S. work force at Intel, which has regularly been one of the top U.S.-based companies using the visas.
Typically, Malloy says, Intel’s H1-B visa holders have graduated from a U.S. university with an advanced degree in science, engineering or math, and many work as component designers, process engineers and software engineers. Comprehensive federal legislation that would remove the arbitrary cap on the number of H-1B visas each year and allow visas to reflect the U.S. economy and what businesses need would be welcomed by Intel and Hillsboro’s other tech companies.
Allowing talented foreign nationals who get advanced degrees at U.S. universities to stay in the United States, rather than sending them (and their talents) packing after graduation, would also make sense.
The same holds true for foreign-born founders of U.S. start-up companies in the U.S. It would be far better for these economy-boosters to have the option of becoming U.S. citizens, and potentially building a business here, rather than pulling up stakes and nurturing their dreams elsewhere. President Obama had it right when he said in January, “Right now, in (an American classroom) there’s a student wrestling with how to turn their big idea — their Intel or Instagram — into a big business. We’re giving them all the skills they need to figure that out, but then we’re going to turn around and tell them to start that business and create those jobs in China or India or Mexico or someplace else. That’s not how you grow new industries in America. That’s how you give new industries to our competitors.”
These immigrants are already boosting Hillsboro’s healthy economy and stand to strengthen it even more if they are brought out of the shadows. They’re working in farmers’ fields, nurseries, restaurants, hotels and other businesses, large and small.
They’re starting new companies. They’re buying and renting homes. In addition to supplying labor, they’re adding to the local demand for products and services.
Making it so the undocumented immigrants already here can live and work here legally would bring an even bigger economic payoff.
Comprehensive immigration reform that allowed all of Hillsboro’s immigrants to come out into the open would pull them out of the underground economy, make it much less likely they will be paid off the books, generate more taxes and allow them to play a more vigorous role in Hillsboro’s economy.
It is also in our best interest to educate the children of undocumented immigrants so they can contribute more to the city’s economy. As Edward Glaeser of Harvard has amply illustrated, cities with educated and skilled populations will achieve more. On the flip side, cities burdened with ill-educated, low-skill populations will struggle.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in 2011 that the United States is the only country where education attainment levels of people entering the labor market (25-34 year-olds) don’t exceed the levels of those about to leave the labor market (55-64 year-olds).
The same holds true for Oregon, where the older generation is more educated than the young. In a globally competitive economic environment, Hillsboro’s economy, and Oregon’s, will pay a heavy price if we fail to educate the children of all immigrants to their maximum potential.
Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.