All-or-Nothing Bad Approach to Immigration

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"The president must abandon his my-way-or-the-highway approach and instead work constructively with Congress."

There is a viable path to meaningful immigration reform, but it does not begin with executive amnesty. During his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama emphasized that "real" immigration reform must involve "fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods and attract the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy." But effectively fixing this high-skilled piece of the immigration puzzle will require legislative action, and the president’s promise to act unilaterally in other areas will only short-circuit the statutory reforms we desperately need.

As someone who has long promoted high-skilled immigration reform, I was hopeful that Obama would support the bipartisan Immigration Innovation (or "I-Squared") Act that I introduced with Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.). Our bill provides a thoughtful, lasting legislative framework that would increase the number of H-1B visas, based on annual market demand, to attract the highly skilled workers and innovators Obama highlighted in his speech.

After all, the president recently argued that a failure to enact immigration reform "has meant lost talents from the best and brightest around the world coming to study here but [who] are forced to leave and then compete against our businesses and workers."

The president recognizes we face a high-skilled worker shortage that has become a national crisis. In April, for the second year in a row, the federal government reached its current H-1B quota just five days after accepting applications. Employers submitted 172,500 petitions for just 85,000 available visas, so American companies were unable to hire nearly 90,000 high-skilled workers essential to help grow their domestic businesses, develop innovative technologies at home rather than abroad and compete internationally.

Despite this crisis, and its immediate damage to our economy, Obama and Senate Democrats have insisted on comprehensive immigration reform or no legislation at all. I am not opposed to a comprehensive approach. In fact, I joined many colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support just such a bill in the Senate last year.

But building support for the ultimate immigration reforms our country needs has not been easy. To overcome a challenging political environment, we must first show that legislating in this area is even possible. And it will require trust that the difficult compromises we must make will be honored and enforced when they are enacted into law.

Above all else, we need serious presidential leadership to make systemic immigration reform a reality. But the president has thus far been unwilling to provide such leadership. Bowing to pressure from his base, and perhaps because of his own impatience, he has created increasingly broad carve-outs to the enforcement of our current immigration laws.

In doing so, he has failed to live up to his constitutional duty to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." And this failure has undermined any confidence that Congress might have had in his willingness to enforce the laws we enact. More important, Obama’s promise to make further unilateral changes to our nation’s immigration policy breeds mistrust and makes meaningful legislative reform even harder to achieve.

Rebuilding this broken trust won’t be easy. But it is critical to the ultimate success of real immigration reform. The president must abandon his my-way-or-the-highway approach and instead work constructively with Congress. He must reject unilateralism and demonstrate a willingness to enforce the law, even when he may prefer a different policy outcome. And he must drop his insistence on immediate comprehensive reform, especially when individual elements — like our high-skilled bill — can win broad support and help pave the way for additional and more far-reaching reforms in the near future.

If the president is serious about enacting meaningful immigration reform, he can choose to take the essential first step. Even in the current partisan climate, there is widespread consensus and real opportunity for bipartisan, bicameral reform of our outdated visa system for economically essential high-skilled immigrants.

A concrete legislative victory where there is already considerable consensus would help build trust and goodwill among those who disagree sharply over other areas of immigration policy. And it would mark a critical first step along the path to broader reform.

Orrin Hatch is a U.S. senator from Utah and the chairman of the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force, as well as the longest-serving Republican senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

J.P. Freire
Director of Communications
Office of Senator Orrin Hatch
(202) 228-0210—Office
(202) 596-5653—Mobile