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Friday, April 21, 2006

Ilya Shapiro Op-Ed: Overqualified Immigrant

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'Overqualified Immigrant'
By Ilya Shapiro : BIO 21 Apr 2006

If the federal government ever gets its act together and passes a much-needed immigration reform, I'm giving up my legal career and taking up a profession that will actually allow me to become a U.S. citizen. Like gardening. Or construction. Or anything else that counts as "unskilled."

And maybe I'll also fly to Cancun for some sun-and-fun. And come back illegally. (I'm tan and speak fluent Spanish; think I could pass?) Or I'll have a Miami friend take me out on a boat -- so I can come back on a raft.

Because I sure ain't gonna get a green card the way I'm going: English-speaking, highly educated, law-abiding, and patriotic. I'm precisely the type of person Uncle Sam would never dream of inviting to be a permanent resident. Unless I got married --which'll happen sooner or later, right?

You see, as I follow the overheated rhetoric about guest-workers and homeland security, legal versus illegal immigrants, and the needs of American business and American labor, I can't help but smile and shake my head. And then go home and cry.

Because no matter how hard I work, how good I am at my job (my day job or this writing thing), how brilliant (and sincere) a personal statement I write espousing my love for this country, its people and values, I will never be able to achieve that which is being offered to certain classes of "undocumented" aliens under any of the proposals being batted around Congressional water coolers. That is, every plan under consideration -- save the "enforcement only" ones that don't even attempt to deal with the reality of 12 million illegal aliens -- contains a measure that allows unskilled foreign workers to be put "on the path to citizenship." This path is simply unavailable to skilled workers like me.

I'm not trying to be cute here: from President Bush to Kennedy-McCain to Kyl-Cornyn, every immigration policy proposal would allow a certain number of unskilled laborers to obtain legitimate work visas for a number of years. As one or two terms of such a visa run out, those who are still gainfully employed would be able to apply to convert their work visas into permanent resident (green card) status -- holders of which can apply for citizenship five years later.

This seems to me a perfectly reasonable reform -- even if you don't grant any amnesty whatsoever for existing illegals; and if these visas are only available to people applying from outside the United States -- there should be some mechanism for importing workers for jobs that can't be filled by Americans at prices Americans employers want to pay (because of limits to what American consumers want to pay). And if these "guest-workers" prove themselves to be good citizens, they should be able to become, well, citizens.

The problem for me -- and for the mere tens of thousands of professionals like me -- is that our visas don't work that way. Under an H1-B -- of which only 55,000 new ones are statutorily authorized for each year -- a highly skilled individual (like a software engineer from Bangalore) can work for a particular American employer for six years (two three-year periods). At the end of that time, unless the employer is willing to begin the arduous process of green card sponsorship and can convince the Labor Department that no American possesses even the minimal qualifications for that job -- it is irrelevant if that hypothetical American is far less qualified than the non-American -- the foreign professional has to leave the country. No exceptions.

For those of us who are that special brand of foreign professionals known as Canadians, there's also the option of a TN (NAFTA-created) visa. (A TN differs from an H1-B only in that it lasts one year instead of three, and can theoretically be renewed an infinite number of times instead of once.) Either way, there is no "path to citizenship" -- and thus, for me, no way to fulfill the higher purpose that has long been my dream: the service of my adopted country.

Despite living here my entire adult life and career, despite my fancy degrees, I cannot work in the State or Defense Departments, in the challenging and critical Justice Department jobs for which I am otherwise qualified, in Executive Office positions, or in any other legal or policy-making posts for which this country has trained me. I cannot even "put my money where my mouth is" (in terms of my support of our engagement in Iraq) by serving in the military JAG Corps -- or even enlisting as a simple infantryman.

Nothing in any proposed immigration reform changes any of this.

Which is why my resolution to come in on the ground floor of the landscaping industry is only partially in jest. After all, America is worth spending time on your knees in the dirt for. But, really, why have such perverse incentives in the first place?

Ilya Shapiro, whose parents took a wrong turn at the St. Lawrence Seaway when immigrating from the Soviet Union, is a Washington lawyer who writes "Dispatches from Purple America." If you are a producer or reporter who is interested in receiving more information about this article or the author, please email your request to

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