Dear Vivek: Think Big On Immigration

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.

I was sorry to read in your most recent post that you were “disappointed” with my response to your article on immigration and Silicon Valley, but I am not surprised. You and I both support a top-to-bottom overhaul of our immigration system, but I think we fundamentally disagree on how to get there, including how to get us to a world-class, functioning immigration and visa system that helps, rather than hurts, the American economy and the high-tech industry.

You argue for the “lean” approach, with a standalone bill for high-tech visas, startup visas, and H1B temporary worker visas. Think small, you seem to argue. Let us accomplish the most, in your estimation, politically popular and achievable components of reform first, and build on that success to work towards something bigger later.

That may be a good model for launching a startup, but it is not a model that fits Congress. Congress is hardly a startup and is not a place to expect long-term, rational or coherent strategic planning towards an eventual good outcome or IPO payday.

No, I prefer a different business model when it comes to enacting legislation: When the marketplace is ready for the next big thing, then you should move. Move quickly, and move big. We in Congress are a lot more like frogs on a skillet than forward-looking visionaries. When the heat is turned up, we move, and when it isn’t, we don’t. Right now, the heat is on both parties to deliver immigration reform that satisfies several decades of dissatisfaction. That dissatisfaction comes from all corners of America — employers, working people, voters, immigrants and non-immigrants alike. The most popular solution on the table is to fix our immigration system and fix it well and not to try to divide up the issue into discrete chunks.

The best way — the fastest and surest way — to get the immigration policy that America needs to compete internationally is to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package that resolves as many of our immigration issues as possible in one bill. This means creating or improving on avenues for legal immigration, getting people who have been waiting decades to come legally through the process, legalizing those already living here through a rigorous but sensible process, and layering in smart enforcement mechanisms that will give the new and improved system integrity.

I find it ironic that a Congressman and former cab driver from Chicago has to be the one to tell you folks with the fancy degrees in Silicon Valley to “think big!” But think big, we must.

In my last article, I focused mainly on the politics and why now is the right time to think big. The nativist wing of the Republican Party opposed to legal immigration no longer has as strong a grip, so many of my colleagues across the aisle are interested in working with Democrats to pass an immigration reform bill.  That is a monumental sea change that could allow us to create legal avenues for immigration that have been clogged, backlogged and unadjusted for too long.

But there is a more important reason to support comprehensive immigration reform right now, because we should reject the notion that one type of immigrant is good for us and another is bad for us. That has never been the case in American history and it is not the case now. We should have an immigration system that matches the needs of our society and the needs of our economy but that is fundamentally egalitarian.

I support a special visa program for STEM graduates in science, technology, engineering and math — and I have. I support it more if it is part of a broader reform to bring sense to our entire immigration system.  Similarly with startup and millionaire visas, they should be part of the mix, but alone, they are not more popular, more politically viable, nor more justifiable than a reform that addresses the great level of need at all levels of our economy.

If measures to address the needs of the high-tech sector could pass independently from a comprehensive immigration reform package, I don’t think they would build support for broader reforms. Congress would probably consider the immigration reform box checked and move on to other issues until the heat was turned up again, and there’s no telling how long that would take.

What then would you have me say to the young person who grew up in the United States but cannot become a citizen, a licensed driver, or a college graduate because they were brought here as a child from another country without a visa? Sorry? You have to wait for the high-tech community in California to get what they need before you can be legal and get on with your life.

That is not an acceptable answer to me. And it’s not an acceptable answer to the American people. Fully 70 percent of the American people support immigration reform with legalization and a path to citizenship in the most recent Washington Post poll and the public support has been consistently high.

What about their parents who, like most undocumented immigrants, probably have lived here a decade or more raising their kids and working hard? Their work is valuable, too, and they should be given a chance to live honestly and uprightly in their adopted country because the reality is, they are part of this country.

What do I say to garlic pickers in Gilroy who are doubly exploited, because they are women and because they are undocumented? Your work and sacrifice for your children is less important than the work of other mothers and fathers farther up highway 101, but when you become more politically viable, we will address the fact that you are working and living in a country that enjoys the taste of your product but not enough to protect you with our wage and labor laws.

Then there is the father in New Jersey who I met a couple of years ago. He is no longer with us, but I carry his plea with me wherever I go. He was a Puerto Rican Vietnam veteran who was dying of cancer who asked me if I could help him prevent his wife from being deported. His children, raised in the United States and citizens from birth, were in danger of losing their mother, an undocumented immigrant, and he asked me to help make sure his family was not exiled or ripped apart after he died.

I know the urgency with which you and others in Silicon Valley seek visas and avenues for fair competition in a global market place, and I need you to keep insisting that the Congress move with all deliberate speed. But I also hear the desperate call from families and neighborhoods dealing with ramped-up enforcement of an irrational immigration system that is failing us. The status quo is unsustainable in so many ways, so all of us who want to get something done and move beyond the gridlock must work together to keep Washington to task.

Vivek, join me and we can accomplish more this year than we have been able to accomplish in decades. But we will only succeed if we are working together and think big.