Dear Vivek Wadhwa, We Need To Fix Our Whole Immigration System And I Need Your Help

Editor’s note: Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez represents the Fourth District of Illinois in the U.S. Congress and is the Chairman of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Follow him on Twitter @LuisGutierrez.

First, thank you Vivek and thank you to TechCrunch for giving me a chance to engage you and your readers in a dialogue about immigration. Vivek, in your essay “Dear Congressman Gutierrez, Please Lift Your Hold On Silicon Valley“), you give me a great deal of credit – or blame – for congressional inaction on immigration reform. I guess I should be flattered that you think I have so much power, but I think you have overstated things. I want to set the record straight and ask for your help.

I agree that we need visas and a new-and-improved immigration arrangement for Silicon Valley and the high-tech sector, but the only way we will win reform is to fight for a top-to-bottom overhaul of our immigration system. We have a rare opportunity in the next few months to fix our immigration system, but only if those of us inside Washington and those of you across the country that want a better immigration system work together.

I think you and I agree that the immigration system we have right now does not meet the needs of America.  There is no adequate legal way for our economy to access workers that are vital to making our economy grow. Families that want to petition for family members to come legally wait years, even decades for a visa to become available. At all levels of the economy and society, we have a mismatch between the supply of legal immigration – visas and green cards – and the demand for legal immigration from our businesses and families.  And we are deporting people at a record pace — more than 1,000 per day — and many are the parents of U.S. citizens, which leaves broken families and children in foster care or uprooted.

Because our immigration system needs fixing top to bottom, fixing it all at once is the right way to approach things. After all, Silicon Valley engineers and entrepreneurs would not be very productive or competitive engines of our economy if they did not have food to eat, or people to care for their children or parents, or a clean office and clean clothes, or a made bed in their hotel room on a business trip. We need a legal immigration system to match workers with work at all levels of our economy — from East Palo Alto to Palo Alto to Stanford University to the Stanford Mall — because one part of our economy does not thrive if there is a black market for labor in other sectors of our economy.

In the high-tech economy where global talent and legal immigration to the U.S. are scarce, as you point out, the United States is at a competitive disadvantage. The question is not if this is a problem, but why does it continue and what should we do about it?

After the hearing at which you testified, I was invited by Rep. Zoe Lofgren to meet with a dozen or so high-tech CEOs and entrepreneurs who had come to Washington to lobby for immigration reform on a trip organized by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. Rep. Lofgren and other Bay Area Members of Congress – Mike Honda, Anna Eshoo, not to mention Nancy Pelosi – have been key allies fighting for immigration reform with me in Washington. At the meeting with CEOs, which is one of several I have had, Rep. Lofgren and I pledged to work with leaders in Silicon Valley to solve the visa shortage that is hampering economic growth and competition.

Silicon Valley’s high-tech firms must stress the urgent need for change.

In fact, last year, Rep. Lofgren and I sponsored a bill (“Attracting the Best and Brightest Act of 2012,” H.R. 6412) to create a program of 50,000 STEM visas for graduates of U.S. universities with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. It would have not only opened up green cards (permanent residence visas) for the graduates themselves, but it also would have allowed their families to be here legally, to work, and eventually apply for citizenship if they wanted to.

The Republicans in control of the House would not give us a vote, but instead brought to the floor – twice – a bill that would create a STEM visa program only if a higher number of green cards were eliminated in other areas, and particularly in the diversity visa program, created by Senator Ted Kennedy as a supplement to the family-based immigration system he helped establish in 1965.

Without the reduction in legal immigration, most of the House Republicans pushing the STEM visas bill would not have supported it. By insisting that legal immigration be reduced, most Democrats were opposed, because, well, that is the problem we are trying to alleviate. This false choice, which pits one set of potential immigrants against another set of potential immigrants, does not serve us well, nor does it get us to a solution. This is a good illustration of the impasse on immigration, which, as you note, has stalled immigration reform for a long while.

The good news is that Republicans are changing and the anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party is in a weaker and weaker position. The opponents of legal immigration had sunk their hooks deeper into Mitt Romney than any Republican candidate for president in recent memory and his positions on immigration were a huge liability. The mass-deportation approach of driving 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the country or waiting for them to “self-deport” did not pass the laugh test. And decades of standing in the way of any sensible attempt to improve our legal immigration system by making avenues of legal immigration wider came back to haunt Republicans.

It is not just Latino and immigrant citizens who responded to Mitt Romney’s immigration message by voting for President Obama, although they did in record numbers. Most Americans think legal immigration is, by and large, a good thing and that we need to fix our immigration system. They also believe that driving out 11 million people is a fantasy. The more sensible approach is to get immigrants in the system through a reasonable process, let them work on-the-books with labor rights and dignity, and create the conditions where companies compete on a level playing field, among U.S. companies and internationally.

The immigration debate is starting in a much different place this time around. The barrier to immigration reform and sensible legal immigration was never me, nor the President, nor Democrats in the House or Senate, nor, frankly, most Republican voters. I think we have a real chance to fix the immigration system from top to bottom this year, much more quickly than maybe you think.

Because of this, individual pieces of reform, no matter how popular, will not move on their own in the short run as long as they are part of the comprehensive effort. Again, the best way to get immigration reform that addresses high-tech workers directly is to fight for comprehensive immigration reform.

Silicon Valley’s high-tech firms must stress the urgent need for change, just as labor unions, clergy, Latino groups, Asian groups, business owners and others are doing. I have been in Washington long enough to know that if the people outside the Capitol are not demanding action from the people inside the Capitol — every day, loudly, in every conceivable way — it just won’t happen. The President is already using his bully pulpit, and bipartisan legislative progress is being made on Capitol Hill. But the people must demand change and pressure Congress from the outside in order to ensure action inside the dome. That is the only way we break through the gridlock on immigration that has lasted decades.