No one should have to do this.
Last Friday, the House of Representatives passed the STEM Jobs Act, which is intended to increase the number of visas granted to foreign students studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (hence STEM) in American schools. Under the act, 55,000 permanent residency visas would be granted to foreign students studying the STEM degrees. While at face value the passing of this act seems positive because it will be helping some people to stay in the country without the threat of being deported, it is in fact conceived as a move to slow reform on immigration by enacting “piecemeal” reform instead of comprehensive reform that would benefit all potential immigrants.
The STEM Jobs Bill is a piece of Republican-led legislation, designed to appeal to Hispanic voters without making extreme changes to immigration law. It is the latest in Republicans’ regimen of “piecemeal” reform. As California Representative Darrell Issa explained, “we need to break up the elephant into bite-size pieces…I want to break this [immigration reform] up into passable bill by passable bill”. The target of the bill is the students whose developing skills are highest in demand in the job market, because according to Texas Representative Lamar Smith, “these students have the ability to start a company that creates jobs or come up with an invention that could jump-start a whole new industry”. The intent, then, is to spur economic growth by selecting for STEM skill sets. There are two problems with this approach: while it is true that this “reform”, relative to potential reforms that would select for less-valued skill sets would boost economic growth, it is not the government’s role to decide what demographics, skill-sets, or industries to promote, especially not at the expense of others. Secondly, economics should not even be the central issue in the debate over immigration reform.
On principle, the “piecemeal” approach ignores the fundamental issue at hand: immigrants to this country, whether documented or not, are human beings that enjoy the same fundamental, inalienable rights that Americans do. The job of lawmakers is not to plan ideal economic outcomes, but to ensure that laws defend individual rights, namely, the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. In the case of immigration, lawmakers must legalize individual rights by welcoming to this country anyone who is willing to work to earn a living, and respect the rights of their fellow Americans. That would entail granting citizenship to all people who come to America to make better lives for themselves.
The STEM Jobs Bill, if enacted, would represent progress only in superficial terms; on net, more people’s rights would be respected to a greater extent. But on principle, there will be no progress. The STEM students would not be viewed as human beings pursuing their own dreams, but as tools for the use of Americans who judge their political success by the standard of annual GDP growth and the support of minority voting blocs in election seasons. They would be statistically, not morally significant. They would be spared deportation and humiliation for the sake of making America richer, not for the sake of being able to lead more fulfilling lives.
For Republicans pushing piecemeal reform, such economic growth is an end in itself, whether or not the means to that end respect individual rights. For the approximately 11.5 million undocumented immigrants not studying STEM subjects, or not studying at all, the potential economic benefits of the STEM Jobs Bill would hardly represent progress.
President Obama’s Executive Order in June offers relief to more people, but is still arbitrary and conciliatory in nature: “Applicants [for the program exempting them from potential deportation] must prove that they were brought to the United States before they turned 16; that they have lived here continuously for the past five years; and that they were in the country and were under age 31 on June 15.” A person’s age is not any more relevant to their rights than their course of study is.
The right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness belongs to all humans, regardless of where they are born and how well their governments’ laws respect their rights. An individual’s rights do not admit of degrees. As such a piecemeal approach to immigration reform, whether it is based on age, career, or any other morally irrelevant standard, is a piecemeal approach to individual rights and a capitulation of individual rights on principle. Both parties, in order to remain true to their commitment to defend American values, should enthusiastically support sweeping, radical, rights-respecting immigration reform that would allow unlimited numbers of people of any age and from any location to flock to the doors of whatever firm will hire them and whatever school believes them to be academically capable. “Piecemeal” reform like the STEM Jobs Bill, President Obama’s executive order, and any other rights-violating policies that leave any number of potential Americans in the dust, should be denounced and abandoned.
Another version of this piece was published in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian.