Immigration made U.S. great, holds promise for future

The United States is a country built on the ingenuity and drive of immigrants. That was true in the 1700s and the 1800s.

It was true in World War II when we brought Wernher von Braun from his Nazi capture to this country to become the father of rocket science and put America on the moon and Mars.

And it was true when Albert Einstein immigrated here in 1933 to take up residence at Princeton to begin a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study.

It is still true today in the Silicon Valley of California, for Oak Ridge National Laboratory in East Tennessee and for Chattanooga, the Gig City.

So it should not seem foreign to home-grown American citizens or our congressional leaders when they take up a comprehensive immigration reform bill later this week -- one intended to provide a clear path to citizenship for immigrants here on visas and without documentation -- that we are still building our country.

The immigration bill also will provide increased border security -- thanks to a pricey $46 billion amendment by former Chattanooga mayor, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

Corker's amendment is intended to draw support from Republicans who've stipulated they won't support immigration reform that doesn't prioritize increased border control. But Corker says his amendment, calling for a doubling of the 20,000-strong border patrol agents and fencing for up to 700 miles, will ultimately pay for itself and then some.

"Over a 10-year period, you're going to have a return of $197 billion without raising anybody's taxes that will reduce our deficit," he said, referring to a report out last week from the Congressional Budget Office.

The amendment drew bipartisan support and passed 67-27, paving the way for a full vote on the comprehensive immigration legislation.

At least two other Chattanoogans, Enterprise Center President and CEO Wayne Cropp and immigration attorney Robert Divine, also believe the comprehensive immigration bill will be good for America's economy.

Cropp says he is interested because U.S. employers need more access to the pool of global talent. Now, even highly skilled foreign students who graduate from our colleges can't stay here and put their talents to work in America.

There's another plus.

"In the short term, there will be in increase in H1-B visas (non-immigrant visas that allow U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations), and with that we will have access to funds to increase computer literacy" of home-grown students and raise skills in science, engineering, technology and mathematics.

Divine, who specializes in immigration law and some years ago wrote a handbook now termed "the Bible" of immigration law, says he understands concerns about amnesty (really, a grace period to become legal). "[It] triggers lots of ambivalent feelings in people -- including me," he said. "But it's not good to have a great number of people living in this country unauthorized."

Most estimates put undocumented immigrants in this country at 11 million. Many have been here for years, and they are interwoven into the fabric of our communities.

We cannot send back all those here illegally, nor can we throw the borders open to all comers. But we can -- we must -- make it possible for bright talent and hard workers to have a pathway to citizenship. Some might be tomorrow's Einstein. Others simply take jobs Americans don't want -- deboning chicken on freezing cold assembly lines, for instance.

Under current law, that pathway is almost nonexistent for many. Even temporary worker visas are hard to come by. The 65,000 allowed annually are normally gone within five days of the opening application date.

The Congressional Budget Office, which issued a report this month, concludes the immigration bill would add 6 million workers to the American job market by 2023 and 9 million by 2033 -- increasing the labor force by 5 percent.

In the beginning, the jump in immigration would hit pay, the CBO report states. By 2023 average wages would be 0.1 percent lower, on average, than they would have been without a change in law. But wages would rise as businesses invest to take advantage of the expanded labor force. By 2033, forecasts indicate average wages would be 0.5 percent higher than they would have been without the new immigrants.

In other words, immigration can produce jobs and better pay for Americans, too.

The legislation seems to have a 50-50 chance right now. The Senate is expected to pass it, but reform foes have vowed to fight it in the House.

The House should take another look. The immigration law we have now is not working. We need to make a change. We also need to compete globally and improve technology, science and mathematics at home.

Our immigrant ancestors, von Braun and Einstein all set a high bar. Let's do it again.

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