President Trump and his allies continue to assail immigrants and perpetuate the myth that U.S. immigration is inherently detrimental to the health of the economy and society at large. From wage depletion and unfair job competition to violent crime and acts of terror, Trump’s “America First” mantra turns on the narrative that all immigrants are antithetical to Americans’ well-being.
The academic literature on the impact of immigration is clear: immigrants help — not harm — the U.S. economy as a whole and commit crimes at lower levels than do native-born Americans. But the impacts of immigration in communities across the country gets muddled; some Americans don’t see the positive benefits of immigration. While it’s accurate that more than half of America’s billion-dollar startups have an immigrant founder, the truth is that an economy is more than just the Fortune 500.
The U.S. has just 5 percent of the world’s population; like a sports team, the U.S. must recruit talent from outside to promote its prosperity and maximize the contributions of all on the team, or the country. Immigrants continue to serve the American people well, despite the deep, structural flaws in a U.S. immigration system that hasn’t been modernized in decades. By fixing that system, we can leverage immigration policy even more effectively to directly aid Americans.
Here are six innovative strategies to better utilize the levers of immigration policy to improve well-being, economic growth, and law and order in the U.S.
#1: Uncap the ‘law & order’ visa
Local law enforcement depends on the cooperation of community members to help them target and prosecute criminals. However, many undocumented residents and their family members are afraid to interact with law enforcement out of fear that they will be punished for immigration violations. The U visa is a tool that encourages victims and witnesses of crimes like domestic abuse, smuggling, and homicide to work with law enforcement and testify against perpetrators. Recipients of this visa gain legal status, work authorization, and a pathway to permanent residency in exchange for testimony that puts criminals behind bars.
Unfortunately, widespread processing delays now mean petitioners often have to wait three years before getting approved to eventually receive a visa, which leaves them in a perilous state when working with law enforcement. The visa that incentivizes victims of crime to come forward to aid local law enforcement in building cases against criminals should not have a cap and should not subject petitioners to huge processing delays. Congress should remove the cap, streamline the program, and improve public safety.
#2: Relaunch the MAVNI program
According to the Pentagon, a majority of U.S. citizens between the ages of 17 and 24 fail to meet the educational, criminal background, and physical fitness requirements to serve in our armed forces, which has led to shortages in key aspects of the military.. America’s foreign-born population represents a tremendous source of knowledge and talent to draw from.
Allowing noncitizens to fill this gap and supplement our armed forces with specific medical, language, and cultural skills was the basis of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program. After completion of service, non-citizens could then apply for citizenship.
In spite of the crucial skill gaps that MAVNI recruits fill, recent policy changes have resulted in high numbers of service members being flagged as security risks — simply for contacting a family member living abroad. Such extreme and arbitrary vetting standards have caused significant delays and canceled enlistments for numerous international recruits.
The MAVNI program should target individuals who present a genuine security risk for heightened vetting, and allow others who honorably served our country — and their families — to become citizens. Additionally, the program should be expanded beyond the 1,000 slots allotted for each military branch and should also be utilized to attract individuals skilled in cybersecurity.
#3: Leverage the “extraordinary ability” visa
The O visa is issued to immigrants of “extraordinary ability,” which can include celebrities and artists as well as Nobel Prize winners and internationally renowned scholars. The O visa should be made more appealing though, either by extending its current three-year term or by creating an expedited pathway towards permanent residency for people who hold it.
Moreover, the U.S. should offer additional special visa programs for certain high-value occupations and national priorities to reduce the strain on other skilled visa categories, such as the H-1B. An “AI Visa” would do just that, funneling elite talent into a separate visa category that is flexible and nimble enough to evolve as new research sectors blossom.
Oren Etzioni argued for a special visa program for AI students and experts to “revitalize our country’s research ecosystem, empower our country’s innovation economy, and ensure that the United States remains a world superpower in the coming decades.” Remco Zwetsloot of the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology writes, “tightening immigration policies is inconsistent with wanting to lead in AI.” It’s common sense for the U.S. to roll out the red carpet for the most sought-after brainiacs the world has to offer.
#4: Create a startup visa
Immigrants and their children are responsible for starting 43 percent of Fortune 500 companies, which employ millions of Americans today. Yet the United States is still one of the few industrialized countries that lacks a startup visa. That causes many foreign entrepreneurs to relocate outside the United States and move north to Canada, and U.S. companies are following them.
America should launch its own entrepreneurship visa for immigrants who receive a certain level of investment in their ventures and offer renewals and an eventual pathway to citizenship for owners of well-performing businesses. An estimate by the Kauffman Foundation found that an entrepreneurship visa would create anywhere from 500,000 to 1.6 million jobs between 2014-2024.
#5: Use the investor visa for infrastructure
There is bipartisan agreement that the U.S. needs to improve our infrastructure. With shoddy mass transit systems, outdated ports, and a lack of broadband access in certain regions, we are in desperate need of more innovative ways to fund infrastructure improvements. One idea is to use the EB-5 visa investments, which currently provides green cards to foreign nationals who invest in U.S. businesses. The program, however, could be expanded to help finance infrastructure projects.
Since 2008, the United States has received $27.5 billion from EB-5 investors. This investment comes with only 10,000 green cards issued annually due to a mandated cap. As of May, roughly 34,000 EB-5 applicants were waiting in line for visas.
The EB-5 program could be altered to provide a major funding stream for national infrastructure improvements by granting approved applicants who choose to invest in critical public infrastructure projects an exemption from the cap. Not only would this finance enhanced infrastructure across the nation, it would provide thousands of jobs for Americans.
#6 Let foreign doctors practice in the U.S.
The United States faces a projected shortage of between 46,900 and 121,900 doctors by 2032. As more Americans approach retirement age, they will increasingly need to entrust their primary care to geriatricians — a specialty that few Americans are interested in pursuing. Americans are also facing shortages of lung doctors due to a resurgence of black lung in Appalachia and an exacerbated shortage of forensic pathologists due to the opioid epidemic.
Typically, foreign doctors who complete their medical residency in the United States must return to their home country for two years before they can return to America, but the Conrad 30 program relieves them of this requirement if they practice in a health care-shortage area for at least three years. Legislation to extend and expand the program has been introduced in both the House and the Senate. Foreign doctors can provide a dynamic surge of physicians and health care professionals to rural America, which is particularly strapped for providers.
Incentivizing foreign doctors and health care professionals to settle and remain in rural America helps plug the dramatic shortage of American workers in these fields and provides necessary variety and increased access to individuals looking for health care options. The current visa regime is inadequate (see my colleague Kristie De Peña’s policy brief here).
A new health care visa would modernize the current process, better recruit foreign providers, and retain them in areas of need: low-income neighborhoods, rural communities, and other places with underserved populations.
We can make the immigration system work better to serve all Americans, from incentivizing immigrant investors to fund critical infrastructure updates and immigrant innovators to create jobs to recruiting international doctors to rural hospitals. We can better advance national priorities by reforming U.S. immigration policy to benefit more Americans more directly.
Immigration is good for America, and we can amplify that benefit by instituting these six reforms.