America's Immigrants: Finding Worth Beyond Skill

Though this summer's immigration reform battle in the U.S. House has invoked such terms as "border surges", DREAMers and a pathway to citizenship, we shouldn't forget the attention paid in the Senate to so-called "high-skilled workers." There, immigrants have been judged for their economic benefit to the United States and regarded favorably when they possess much-sought skills in the natural sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics -- the so-called STEM fields.

The argument goes that such foreign nationals are "high-skilled" (with high levels of education and/or experience), filling gaps in the U.S. labor market in sectors and jobs for which too few U.S.-born workers qualify. These desired skills make the workers themselves desirable. Such perceived contributions to the U.S. economy are recognized through proposed increases in visa allotments laid out in the Senate comprehensive reform bill (S. 744) and suggest an historic shift in American immigration policy towards a greater emphasis on identifying, recruiting and retaining economically desirable immigrants.

However, there are problems with this labeling of migrants as high-skilled (or not). This subjective and value-laden notion where skill is equated with desirability has another, more troublesome and less favorable implication: people (here, immigrants) currently considered "low" or "un"-skilled become "undesirable."

Recently, the Brookings Institution released a report that addressed part of this issue arguing for a broadening of the definition of STEM occupations to include jobs, such as carpenters, mechanics and technicians; without the occupational prestige or college degrees often associated with high-skilled STEM work, they still require specialized knowledge. One take-away from this report? Desirable skills (therefore desirable workers) exist outside what we commonly associate with high-skilled. While Brookings broadens the notion of desirability they still focus on the economic quality of the individual.

In short, by focusing on skill the current immigration debate ascribes incoming migrants an assumed, fixed economic value: How much can they contribute to our economy given their current skill level? Here, their potential and future contributions to the economy and to society, as well as their non-economic qualities, are minimized or ignored. (The legislative fate of the DREAMers, where their potential economic contribution drives the argument for their being granted legal status, is far from certain.)

Ultimately, with the passage of any immigration reform bill, Congress risks codifying in law the inherent value of a person (the immigrant) as nothing more than an economic tool regardless of the qualities they possess (but may not use in their current work) or have the potential of developing given the right opportunity for training or fostering their skills. This disproportionately affects those in jobs not deemed skilled or without the skills or credentials valued in the current economic market.

Should we stop using the term "skill"? No, but we need to be mindful that assessing skill is not only temporal but sector and job (not person)-specific. For example, years of education and practice as a French-language interpreter -- arguably a high-skilled person -- does not make someone capable of performing open-heart surgery or of building a home. It is the particular education and practical experience in the context of the opportunities available and open within a sector and a job that determines if a worker is skilled or not.

Additionally, having no high school diploma (what might be termed un- or low-educated) must not quickly be deemed un- or low-skilled. The lesson here is not only applicable to foreign nationals: training, non-degree education and on-the-job experience should not be discounted in the assessment of a person's desirability (or capability).

Despite its near constant coverage and debate, reforming our immigration system is a rare event in America -- 1986 was the last major legislative change to immigration. Looking ahead to Congress' post-recess debate of both comprehensive and piecemeal proposals, STEM and high-skilled immigrant workers will again be identified as desirable groups worthy of inclusion in any likely bill. In doing so we are not only making a decision for today, but also setting a precedent for future immigration debate and legislation. Do we not also want to bring into our country those whose contributions will surpass our immediate economic needs? Simply assessing a person's immediate economic value is short-sighted, and devalues their human worth and potential as contributors to America's long-term cultural, political and economic prosperity. Have we re-written the motto on the Statue of Liberty, replacing "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.." with "Give me your energetic, your highly skilled, distinctive elites seeking to maximize their current market value..."?

co-authored by Joe Costanzo** and James Witte

** Joe Costanzo is a postdoctoral fellow at George Mason University's Institute for Immigration Research.