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Updated Apr 24, 2013 - 9:02 pm

Help cities by focusing on economic realities of immigration

As a mayor, I’ve
been fortunate to learn
many new things. One
thing I didn’t expect to
learn is the aerospace
and agriculture industries
in Arizona have
very similar challenges.

An executive with an
aerospace company
once talked about the
many challenges he faced in his business.
He told the story of a talented graduate
student from a major university who worked
on a project with the company as part of
his studies. The student demonstrated
incredible skill, and the company wanted to
hire him when he graduated. Unfortunately,
the student was unable to obtain a visa,
and he returned home to his native country.
The manager lamented that while Arizona
taxpayers had subsidized the education of
this excellent student, they will not reap
the benefits of his unique talents. Now,
the student likely works for a company that
competes with American businesses.

Another business leader, a farmer from
southwestern Arizona also spoke of the
challenges he faced making his operation
successful. He talked about not being able
to harvest his valuable lettuce crop in a
timely manner. He lost a large amount of
money as his crop literally rotted in the
field. Although he had raised wages to unprecedented
levels, he could not attract a
sufficient number of field laborers. Workers
who used to cross the border to pick the
crops were no longer able to do so.

These are two stories in different industries.
One is high-tech aerospace and the
other high-value perishable food. One
hires highly skilled, high-wage workers and
the other low-skill, low-wage workers. But
the problem is virtually the same. Both
industries have challenges hiring enough
Americans to meet their unique labor
needs. Both suffer from an immigration
system that is broken, out of date, and fails
to recognize the realities of the world in
which we live.

As we debate immigration policy in
this country, we don’t tend to talk much
about how important immigration is to our
economic future. We tend to focus more
on who we want to either keep out or kick
out, and not enough on who we should be
letting in or letting stay. We also concentrate
on costs allegedly incurred by illegal
immigrants, while failing to recognize the
significant cost to the American economy
when we lose opportunities to include
talented and productive immigrants in our
workforce.

We have a lot to do to make the system
work. For example, Canada issues more
visas to highly skilled workers than the U.S.
even though its population is less than the
state of California. Meanwhile, talented
“Dreamers” who were brought here as
children, who have known no other country
than America, and who could contribute
immediately to U.S. economic growth are
essentially kept out of both higher education
and the work force. The American
economy and each of us are hurt when we
fail to find permanent solutions for these
glaring holes in our system.

Congress can help America’s cities by
focusing its efforts on solutions that deal
with the economic realities we face. Interestingly,
by taking an economic approach,
legitimate questions about the rule of law,
fairness, and compassion can also be more
easily resolved. This can create an immigration
solution that is good for all of us.

Scott Smith is the Mayor of Mesa.

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