Tea party activist Sal Russo broke popular political dogma in the battle over immigration reform this week, calling on conservatives to take the lead in fixing the “flawed and broken” system and keep pace with a growing, modern economy.
As co-founder of the Tea Party Express, Russo challenged Congress to take up immigration immediately, regardless of the additional risks involved with passing such legislation amid a mid-term election year. The majority of Russo’s contemporaries in Congress — including tea party aligned members of the House Republican leadership — have rejected such calls.
“Conservatives should be at the forefront of reform so the law reflects the just interests of the United States, not misty-eyed ideals of some of the liberal do-gooder reformers,” Russo wrote in a Wednesday op-ed in Roll Call. “What is good for America should be the sole criteria for immigration reform.”
Although in the Republican minority on the issue, Russo isn’t the only one. Americans for Tax Reform founder and organizer behind the Taxpayer Protection Pledge Grover Norquist stood with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and four Democrats in the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” to pass a comprehensive immigration bill in the Senate last year.
Russo’s Tea Party Express, which rallied support for tea party candidates in 2009 to recapture the House for Republicans, and partnered with CNN in 2012 to host the first tea party Republican presidential debate, announced Monday a team-up with Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform to host monthly conference calls highlighting conservative support for immigration reform.
“We have the strongest economy in the world, the most innovative businesses and a history replete with examples of how legal immigration has made us stronger,” Russo said. “Conservatives need to seize on immigration reform as an opportunity for growth, to reaffirm who we are and what makes our country great.”
Russo expressed that failing to take up immigration reform poses a serious risk to domestic and global U.S. economic interests, especially in the key burgeoning sectors of the economy requiring expertise in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) — areas where the U.S. is already grossly lagging behind.
“Our economy has long outgrown the visa programs we have now. In high-skilled industries such as engineering and medicine, we do not have the talent we need to fill the jobs,” Russo said. “These industries are the fastest growing in the country and we depend on them for job creation and economic growth. But according to the Partnership for a New American Economy, we face a shortage of more than 235,000 jobs in science, technology, engineering and math fields by 2018.”
According to a new National Bureau of Economic Analysis study released last week, immigrants in STEM fields have been responsible for higher wages among American workers overall since at least 1990. University of California and Colgate University economists looked at 219 U.S. cities from 1990 to 2010 to examine the number of employer-granted, high-skill, specialty occupation visas (known as H-1B in the Immigration and Nationality Act) were present, and their effect on wages, employment and productivity of American college and non-college grads.
In any given city, a one-percent increase in foreign STEM worker employment raised the wage growth of natural-born Americans with college degrees by 7 to 8 percent, according to the study. Among Americans without degrees, wages rose by 3 to 4 percent. According to study authors, that translates to tens of thousands in additional earnings over the span of a career.
“Foreign STEM growth can explain between a third and a half of the average productivity growth in the period 1990-2010,” study authors Giovanni Peri, Chad Sparber and Kevin Shih wrote.
The study also found the number of foreign H-1B visas from STEM jobs had no effect on American employment prospects whatsoever, and research released in February by Peri found that increasing legal immigration, regardless of education or occupation, would lead to a greater increase in American employment prospects more than increasing deportation or border security.
While Congress drags its feet on immigration, cities are taking matters into their own hands. Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has requested the federal government for 50,000 STEM immigration visas over five years to attract foreign professionals to Detroit, which has lost one million residents in the last 60 years according to The Manhattan Institute’s Economics 21. Snyder’s request is aimed at increasing the city’s overall population, productivity and wages.
H-1B visas are currently capped at 65,000 for foreign nationals, with room for an additional 20,000 with advanced degrees. The government began accepting applications for 2015 on April 1, and was filled and closed within a week. The Senate’s immigration reform bill would increase H-1Bs to 205,000.
“Doing nothing now means hurting businesses just as we are coming out of the Great Recession,” Russo said. “Today, 40 percent of our Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or child of an immigrant. Much of the new small-business growth in the country is because of legal immigrants.”
“It is time to make the changes that our citizens and our economy demand. Our current policies date back to the 1960s, when TVs were black and white and computers were bigger than cars. Our nation competes in a global economy, and our immigration policies should reflect our needs for the 21st century. Conservative-led immigration reform is an important step to a brighter American future.”