Why we need a ‘plan B’ for comprehensive immigration reform

May 2, 2013

“Without a path to citizenship there can be no immigration reform,” said Senator Mike Bennet (D-Colo.), at the Milken Institute Global Conference on Monday during a panel discussion.

Marchers are visible through a United States flag during a May Day rally in downtown Los Angeles, Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Marchers are visible through a United States flag during a May Day rally in downtown Los Angeles, Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Bennet, one of the “Gang of 8” senators negotiating comprehensive immigration reform legislation, was adamant that we should not create an under-class that has fewer rights than American citizens.

But if Bennet and his colleagues wanted to place immigrants’ interests before their own, they would, in short order, pass a series of bills that are acceptable to both political parties rather than risk the possibility for reform entirely by waiting for one, comprehensive bill. Even Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has said that the bill he helped craft as one of the leading voices in the “Gang of 8″ would likely not pass the House without changes.

That said, Bennet, media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa all argued that we have a historic opportunity to fix the entire immigration system with comprehensive immigration reform and that this is the right path forward. I agree with them, but I still worry that past will be prologue and immigration reform will, like our fiscal policy, fall over a “cliff.” I said during the panel, as I have said before, that we need a plan B—a series of bills that are passed if comprehensive reform stalls. Time is of the essence for far too many individuals who seek to work and realize the nation’s innovation promise.

The Startup Visa alone could boost the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) by as much as 1.6 percent within 10 years according to Kauffman Foundation’s calculations. Villaraigosa says he foresees a boom in entrepreneurship and economic activity in Los Angeles with legalization of undocumented workers. Laurene Powell Jobs, Founder and Chair of the Emerson Collective, made a passionate plea for the DREAM Act and highlighted the economic harm that excluding promising children from the economy is doing. The Emerson Collective boosts social entrepreneurs focused on education and immigration reform as well as social justice and conservation.

As I said in our discussion, the undocumented workers who live in the shadows of American society want basic human rights. They want the freedom to be able to work, pay taxes and move throughout the country and between their home country and the United States freely. Carlos Gutierrez, Vice Chair of strategy firm Albright Stonebridge Group and the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce presented data, which shows that, under the immigration reform measure in 1986, only 40 percent of those immigrants who qualified became U.S citizens. We need, he said, to solve the immediate problems rather than demanding perfection.

So, the battle for comprehensive immigration reform should continue. But there should also be a rescue plan to save immigration reform from the jaws of political gridlock’s trap. America’s innovation future depends on it.

Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Harvard, Duke and Emory Universities as well as the University of California Berkeley. Read more about Vivek Wadhwa and more of his columns on innovation.

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Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University.
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