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GUEST COMMENTARY: It's not smart to send well-educated immigrants back home

Tuesday, February 4, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Rick Snyder knows how the economy works. He was a top executive for the computer maker Gateway before heading a venture capital firm that invested in startup companies.

For the last three years he's been governor of Michigan, and like many conservative Republicans who actually have to run something, he's far more pragmatic than many of the blowhards back in Washington who are unburdened by either experience or responsibility.

That practical streak led him to propose an innovative idea: Issue 50,000 special visas over five years to attract well-educated, highly motivated immigrants to a state battered by a declining manufacturing base.

"We graduate about 5,000 international students a year from Michigan universities," said Snyder in announcing his plan. "But then what do we typically do after we've gone through the process of giving them a world-class education? We have a federal program that tells them to get out.

"How dumb is that? Shouldn't we welcome them? Shouldn't we say 'please stay'?"

Snyder's proposal focuses on one particularly "dumb" element of our immigration system, which makes it very hard for graduates of our universities to stay and work here, to build businesses and create jobs.

But he also makes a larger point that is directly relevant to a renewed debate over immigration policy, the only big issue where bipartisan progress seems possible this year. Newcomers are good for the economy. They don't take jobs away from native-born Americans, they create jobs for everyone.

The know-nothing nativists who say otherwise are simply wrong. There are moral reasons for Republicans to help enact measures that would legalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants now living here.

That's why the Catholic Church and many evangelical leaders strongly support reform efforts. There are political reasons as well. Republicans who can do basic math understand their party must be able to attract a decent share of Hispanic and Asian voters — groups that backed Obama heavily in 2012.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it bluntly when speaking about Hispanics: "If you are against the fastest-growing voting bloc in the country, you and your party don't have a future."

But the economic arguments in favor of immigration reform don't get enough attention. If Republicans believe their own rhetoric, if they truly want to be the party of growth and opportunity, if they really prize individual entrepreneurship and hard work, then supporting immigration reform should be a no-brainer.

President Obama emphasized the economic argument in his State of the Union address when he said, "Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades."

If Republicans don't trust the president, at least they should listen to Rick Snyder. As he points out, one-third of the high-tech businesses created in Michigan in the last decade were founded by immigrants.

For every job that goes to an immigrant, 2.5 jobs are created for U.S.-born workers. "Isn't that how we made our country great, through immigrants?" asks the governor.

Too many members of his party refuse to admit that the answer is clearly yes. One faction opposing immigration reform represents a tradition deeply rooted in American history — xenophobes who fear foreigners and exploit those fears in others.

Another group, clustered mainly in the House, makes a crassly political decision. Since they represent heavily Republican districts that include few immigrants, they have only one political worry, a primary challenge from the right.

So while their opposition to reform might damage the party nationally, it protects them personally. Then there's the cynical view, propounded by some conservative strategists, which says Republicans should totally abandon the immigration issue this year.

For example, National Review, a conservative magazine, editorialized that the disastrous rollout of Obamacare has "dealt the party a winning hand," and the GOP should not distract attention from that issue in any way.

Forget morality. Forget economics. Forget the long-term health of the party. Do nothing. No wonder only 19 percent of Americans told an ABC/Washington Post poll that they have confidence in Republicans to make the "right decisions" for the country.

Democrats are not blameless here. Some would certainly prefer to undermine any deal on immigration reform and keep the issue alive for the next election. Others might hold out for an ideal solution and oppose any compromise that creates a legal status short of full citizenship.

But the main obstacle to a deal is on the Republican side. And Rick Snyder is right. Our "dumb" immigration system must be replaced, and soon.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com. Distributed by Universal Uclick.


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