High-skilled immigration reform
Having an “Asian” face with a “U.S. ambassador” title, I am often asked where I am really from.
I am generally forgiving, as no ill will is intended. And often it reflects the speaker’s, American or not, own experiences with immigration and immigrants. For them, a Korean immigrant works at the convenience store and a Chinese one at a restaurant. High-skilled engineers or U.S. diplomats do not come to mind - even at a time when Barack Obama has redefined what a U.S. president looks like, and immigrants have helped build U.S. companies and create jobs, from Silicon Valley to the local sandwich shop.
For several countries in the Asia-Pacific region, immigration remains a contentious issue. Consider Australia’s controversial efforts to intercept at sea a new generation of “boat people” fleeing impoverished, strife-torn nations. Or reflect on Japan’s own much-documented immigration laws effectively barring many ethnic Koreans from becoming citizens despite years of living, and indeed being born, in that country.
Even in my country, perhaps the nation best known as a land of immigrants and their descendants, the debate rages on.
As I have argued on CNBC and elsewhere, there is at least one area where all political parties should be able to come together for meaningful, near-term action: the untapped potential of the many skilled men and women in the United States through legal channels. This includes tens of thousands from India, China and elsewhere in Asia.
Unfortunately, this issue has generally been overlooked amid the focus on the flow of unauthorized, low-skilled immigrants - the vast majority of them from south of the border, but also numerous unskilled immigrants from Asia and elsewhere. The language of immigration today also is increasingly politicized, adding little to a constructive discussion: illegal vs. undocumented. Amnesty vs. a path to citizenship.
For skilled immigrants who were doctors, lawyers or other professionals in their countries of origin, first jobs in the United States typically take little to no advantage of their full skill-sets given licensing or accreditation requirements. The anecdotes are legion and legend: the taxi driver from India who was once an engineer, or the nanny from the Philippines who was a nurse back home.
The story is as old as America. Immigrants sacrifice, and ultimately succeed in building better lives for their children, if not yet themselves. That was certainly the story shared among many in my own family as some 120 people, descendants of Chinese immigrants of many decades past, came together last August in Seattle for our first ever family reunion.
And like many a Pacific Northwest family, the occupations and preoccupations were varied: from Seattle public school teacher to Boeing engineer to my own recent service as one of the few U.S. ambassadors of Chinese heritage.
By some counts, I am the fourth, with Gary Locke, the former U.S. Ambassador to China, U.S. Commerce Secretary and Washington state governor, the fifth.
There is bipartisan support for an effort focusing first on immigrant integration, separate and distinct from the contentious issue of immigrant admissions.
Addressing the ongoing “brain waste” of an estimated 1.5 million college-educated immigrants either unemployed or working in relatively unskilled jobs also will help America better utilize the nation’s diversity of human capital. This also should not detract from the critical challenge of job creation and ensuring all Americans, regardless of immigration status, can build careers in today’s economy.
The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute - a Washington think tank focused on analysis of the movement of people worldwide - has in the past noted America’s uneven progress in integrating skilled immigrants. Policy implications could include a greater focus on state work force agency partnerships and on advancing accredited work-skills training and English language programs. At the federal level, incentives could well be provided for more effective bridging programs for America’s underutilized talent.
One such program supported by World Education Services - a research organization focused on international education and credential evaluation and on whose Board I sit - is aptly called “pathways to success.”
This effort includes seminars offering practical advice and resources to skilled immigrants on how to further pursue education, obtain professional licensing or certification, and find suitable employment in the United States.
In December, the United States marked the anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a sweeping immigration reform bill into law. In 2006, President George W. Bush became the first to address the nation from the Oval Office in prime-time on immigration reform, an effort that ultimately failed. This month, his brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, was criticized for what was seen by others as welcoming comments on immigration.
Today, America again has the opportunity to mend a broken system and set an example for Asia-Pacific nations that are also struggling with how best to welcome strangers to their shores and perhaps one day to turn them into new citizens. In his remarks during his upcoming trip to Asia, Obama may well choose to acknowledge the contributions of the many Americans who themselves or their ancestors once called Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia or somewhere else in the region home.
An even better tribute would include the U.S. president and Congress putting politics aside and focusing first on ensuring skilled immigrants can fully utilize their talents and education toward building an even stronger America. This might be a small step forward but it can help build trust that will be critical for a larger deal. High-skilled immigration reform also will be to the near-term benefit of the United States and its economy, as well as the many Asians seeking legally to build better lives there, and also provide a shining example to Asia that progress can still be made even on the most difficult issues.
*The author, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-2010), is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin
By Curtis S. Chin