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The key to lifting up blue-collar America is immigration

Allowing hardworking people to come to America’s golden shores and pursue their own dreams is crucial to the success of our nation.

In this Feb. 2, 2021, file photo President Joe Biden signs an executive order on immigration, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Biden rushed to send the most ambitious overhaul of the nation’s immigration system in a generation to Congress. And he signed nine executive actions to wipe out some of his predecessor’s toughest measures to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

President Joe Biden has pledged to pursue immigration reform as his first major legislative initiative. Biden proposes to undo Trump’s immigration bans, increase legal immigration based on skills, family ties, refugees and diversity as well as provide a pathway to citizenship to all noncriminal illegal immigrants in the United States.

Amid an economy battered by a worldwide pandemic, officials during the Trump administration took the opportunity to halt nearly all immigration — including incoming investors, doctors, engineers and family members of U.S. citizens. All of this despite the overwhelming evidence that restricting highly skilled immigration as they did would destroy countless jobs for Americans and immigrants alike. Thankfully, the Biden proposal’s provisions to enhance skills-based legal immigration promise to make things better for blue-collar America.

Trump administration officials argued that reducing immigration would free up jobs for American citizens. But the economic reality is that these bans do nothing to protect American jobs and everything to keep more lower-class Americans unemployed.

Blue-collar workers haven’t had it easy for a long time — that’s for certain. Manufacturing employment peaked over 40 years ago in 1979 when 19.5 million American workers were employed in the sector. Since then, the U.S. population has increased by more than 100 million people. Yet, by the end of 2019 — while manufacturing production was on a steady incline — the sector employed just below 12.9 million workers.

One year and a worldwide pandemic later, manufacturing has shed hundreds of thousands of workers again. It’s the same story for retail, another historic American sector, which has experienced a two-decadeslong stagnation and was among the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic. All of this has made many Americans despair at the prospect that one classic form of the American dream, in which workers could sustain a family by working at a manufacturing plant or at a small shop, isn’t possible anymore.

But immigration restrictions won’t resurrect the America of 50 years ago. Rather, they’ll only speed the demise of the high-paying blue-collar jobs we want to preserve. In fact, one economic model shows that high-skill visa programs like H-1B are overwhelmingly beneficial for blue-collar Americans.

If more foreign college-educated workers came to America under the H-1B program, America would have a larger college-educated workforce. And the evidence shows that this will lead to more companies, more high-end manufacturing firms, hospitals and labs — all of which will be looking to hire workers without college degrees, too. It means a larger population demanding the services of the same noncollege workforce (within construction, manufacturing and retail) and bidding up their wages and creating more jobs for them.

These positive effects occur because highly-educated workers aren’t, as anti-immigration pundits would have you believe, substitutes for other workers. Instead, the data overwhelmingly shows that highly-educated workers are the complements of one another. This is even more true of the relationship between workers who have college degrees and those who don’t. Workers on H-1B visas — mostly engineers and computer scientists — all have college degrees and get paid on average over $100,000 per year. And because they’re the most qualified for their specific jobs, their presence in America has been shown to increase innovation and productivity.

On the other hand, restrictions on high-skilled immigrants who come on H-1B visas lead to fewer blue-collar jobs — due, in part, to offshoring. A study by Dr. Britta Glennon, who specializes in the economics of high-skilled immigration at University of Pennsylvania, confirmed this when she showed that past restrictions on H-1B visas caused American firms to relocate abroad, especially to China, a country that’s forever trying to undermine America.

While immigration bans harm blue-collar America, increasing legal immigration can help us turn things around quickly and with less cost.

President Biden promises to increase the number of permanent visas available to highly skilled immigrants and investors which are now a mere 140,000 per year out of 1 million total issued. His proposal while it doesn’t end the limits altogether would exempt the spouses and children of these workers from being counted against the numerical cap, effectively doubling the number of skills-based green cards. Additionally, his proposal would “recapture” green cards not issued in past years, which could add hundreds of thousands of additional green cards to highly skilled immigrant workers who’ve been waiting for over a decade.

This is critical for American workers because a mere 40,000 EB-1 visas are granted annually — despite over 55,000 petitions being approved — leading to an ever-growing backlog of legal immigrants who will never get a visa to come into the country. The crisis is similar for EB-2 and EB-5 visas which are granted to professionals with advanced degrees and to multimillion dollar investors who hire 10 or more American workers respectively. In total there are nearly a million legal immigrants approved for their visas but who can’t get them because of these numerical caps. Biden’s proposal would eliminate this backlog and allow for the number of high skilled legal immigrant visas to grow based on economic conditions. Everyone should want to welcome these job-creating investors and highly accomplished doctors and professionals.

Biden would go further and not just exempt the family members of those granted skills-based green cards from these arbitrary caps but also exempt graduates of American universities with advanced degrees in STEM from visa caps and make it easier for them to stay in America after graduation. This is something Trump said he wanted to do.

The president shouldn’t conform to only this legislative proposal. He can take executive action to make the immigration system more flexible and friendly to immigrant entrepreneurs. Right now, international students can work for only one year after graduation, and if they are in STEM, for three years, under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. But they can only run their own business in their first year of OPT. The Department of Homeland Security ought to expand OPT to three years for all international graduates and allow them to run a business the entire time. Likewise, DHS should reform regulations to allow international students to run their own businesses part time while they go to school. All of this would give international students the chance to be entrepreneurs, hire American workers, transition onto a green card and finally become U.S. citizens. What’s more American than that?

We hear a lot of talk from the right these days about “putting America first.” But that means implementing policies that raise wages and create jobs for every American, especially those who have been left behind by our degree-obsessed workforce. Allowing hardworking people to come to America’s golden shores and pursue their own dreams is crucial to the success of our nation. And in the meantime, we’ll revive the American Dream for those who have been forgotten for far too long.

Daniel Di Martino is a Venezuelan immigrant, Young Voices Openness Fellow and senior contributor, and a Ph.D. in economics student at Columbia University. You can follow him on Twitter here.