As immigration reform bogs down once again in the nation's capital, there is at least one area where both sides should be able to come together for some meaningful, near-term action. That is focusing on the untapped potential of the hundreds of thousands of skilled men and women who have already come to the United States — many of them from Asia, particularly China and India — through legal channels.
Unfortunately, this issue has generally been overlooked amid the focus on the flow of unauthorized, low-skilled immigrants into the United States, and the pleas of some high-tech companies for more visas that would allow them to hire additional employees from overseas with specialized skills. The language of immigration today also is increasingly politicized, adding little to a constructive discussion: Illegal vs. undocumented. Amnesty vs. a path to citizenship.
In today's slow-to-no-growth global economy, politicians of all political persuasions understandably fear the consequences of action, not inaction. Some worry about the impact on core labor constituencies of potential competition by low-wage immigrants. Others ponder what numerous new citizens of Asian and Latino origin will mean for future presidential elections. Even in Asia, the largest source of high-skilled immigrants to the US, immigration is a contentious issue. Case in point: Japan's ongoing reluctance to welcome immigrants despite a rapidly aging population.
Yet, in the United States, let's not let this larger, ongoing debate – and admittedly an important one – on immigration stand in the way of making smaller-scale updates to what has been the traditional path forward for many seeking the American dream.
For skilled immigrants who were doctors, lawyers or other professionals in their countries of origin, first jobs in the United States typically take little to no advantage of their full skill-set given licensing or accreditation requirements. The anecdotes are legion and legend: the taxi driver who was once an engineer, or the nanny who had long worked as a nurse back home.
The story is as old as America. Immigrants sacrifice, and ultimately succeed in building better lives for their children, if not yet themselves. That was certainly the story shared among many in my own family as some 120 people, descendants of Chinese immigrants of many decades past, came together recently in Seattle for our first ever family reunion.
And like many a Pacific Northwest family, the occupations and preoccupations were varied: from Seattle public school teacher to Boeing engineer to my own recent service as one of the few U.S. ambassadors of Chinese heritage. (By some counts, I am the fourth, with Gary Locke, the former U.S. Ambassador to China, U.S. Commerce Secretary and Washington state governor, the fifth.)
Many in our extended family gathered again recently as we marked the recent passing in Yakima, Washington, of a great aunt, Jade Hong Chin, who immigrated to the United States in 1947 to be united with her husband Calvin after WWII had separated them.
These tales of immigrant life, of separation and of coming together, and of becoming American will not change.
But what could well change, in a bipartisan manner, is support for an effort focused on immigrant integration, separate and distinct from the contentious issue of immigrant admissions.
Addressing the ongoing "brain waste" of an estimated 1.5 million college-educated immigrants either unemployed or employed in relatively unskilled jobs also will help America better utilize the nation's diversity of human capital. This also should not detract from the critical challenge of job creation and ensuring all Americans, regardless of immigration status, can build careers in today's economy.
The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute – a Washington, D.C., think tank focused on analysis of the movement of people worldwide – has in the past noted America's uneven progress in integrating skilled immigrants. Policy implications could include a greater focus on state workforce agency partnerships and on advancing accredited work-skills training and English language programs. At the federal level, incentives could well be provided for more effective bridging programs for America's underutilized talent.
One such program doing so, supported by World Education Services – a research organization focused on international education and credential evaluation and on whose board I sit – is aptly called "pathways to success."
This effort includes seminars offering practical advice and resources to skilled immigrants on how to further pursue education, obtain professional licensing or certification, and find suitable employment in the United States.
Last December, the United States marked the 70th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That original act of Congress had singled out an ethnic group for immigration exclusion, prohibited legal Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens, and relegated them to second-class status.
Those times thankfully are behind us even though some may well raise fears about new waves of immigrants hitting the shores of an ever-changing America. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a sweeping immigration reform bill into law. In 2006, President George W. Bush became the first to address the nation from the Oval Office in prime-time on immigration – a reform effort that ultimately failed.
Today, America again has the opportunity to mend a broken system, and set an example for the world. The U.S. Congress can begin small, even as it thinks big, and focus first on ensuring skilled immigrants, from Asia and elsewhere, can fully utilize their talents and education toward building an even stronger America.
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-2010), is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin