How immigration reform will benefit US and Asia

opinion April 23, 2014 00:00

By Curtis S Chin
Special to The

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Fears over freer flow of labour must take a back seat as we focus on attracting and integrating skilled migrant workers

As negotiators shape the governing documents of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), one contentious issue remains the free movement of labour across the 10 nations that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Wealthier nations, such as Singapore and Brunei, will not open up their borders. And middle-income countries such as Thailand fear either the consequences of floods of unskilled labour, or to the contrary, that as nations such as Myanmar develop, their labour costs will rise and migrant workers move home.
The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor might once have welcomed “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses [and] the wretched refuse”, but that will not be so for the AEC. Labour mobility under the AEC will be limited as each nation understandably negotiates for implementation measures that work to what they perceive as being their own advantage. There is also many an anti-immigration message and stereotype voiced in Thailand of the Lao or the Burmese, or in Singapore of Indonesians and Malay, that finds echoes in the unfortunate language of a divided Washington of today.
For numerous countries in the Asia-Pacific region, immigration remains a contentious issue. Consider Australia’s controversial efforts to intercept at sea a new generation of “boat people” fleeing impoverished, strife-torn nations. Or reflect on Japan’s own much-documented immigration laws effectively barring many ethnic Koreans from becoming citizens despite years of living, and indeed being born, in that country. And, of course, in Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh, there are some who continue to question what is an immigrant when it comes to the people known as the Rohingya.
Even in my own country, perhaps the nation best known as a land of immigrants and their descendants – the United States – the debate rages on. President Barack Obama, due soon back in Asia, and his predecessor George W Bush have been unable to move a recalcitrant Congress, split between Republicans and Democrats, to act.
As I have argued, however, on CNBC and elsewhere, there is at least one area where all US political parties should be able to come together for some meaningful, near-term action. That is focusing on the untapped potential of the many skilled men and women who have already come to the United States through legal channels. This includes tens of thousands from India, China and elsewhere in Asia.
Unfortunately, this issue has generally been overlooked amidst the focus on the flow of unauthorised, low-skilled immigrants into the United States – the vast majority of them from south of the US border, but also including numerous unskilled immigrants from Asia and elsewhere. The language of immigration today also is increasingly politicised, adding little to a constructive discussion:  Illegal versus undocumented. Amnesty versus a path to citizenship. 
In the slow-to-no-growth global economy, whether in the United States, Europe or Southeast Asia, politicians too often fear the consequences of action, not inaction. Some worry about the impact on core labour constituencies of potential competition by low-wage immigrants. Others ponder what numerous new citizens of Asian and Latino origin will mean for future US elections.
Yet this larger, ongoing US debate on immigration, though important, should not 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 from India who was once an engineer, or the nanny from the Philippines 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 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 last August 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 US ambassadors of Chinese heritage.
By some counts, I am the fourth, with Gary Locke, the former US Ambassador to China, Commerce Secretary and Washington state governor, the fifth.
Many in our extended family gathered again earlier this year in Yakima, Washington, to remember and celebrate the life of a great aunt, Jade Hong Chin, who recently passed away and who had emigrated to the United States in 1947 to be united with her husband Calvin after WWII had separated them.
Her and other tales of immigrant life, of separation and of coming together, and of becoming American will not change and will be echoed in future tales of others.
But what could well change, with bipartisan support in Washington, is support for an effort focusing first 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 utilise 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-based 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 programmes. At the federal level, incentives could well be provided for more effective bridging programmes for America’s under-utilised talent.
One such programme doing so, supported by World Education Services – a research organisation 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 US marked the 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 naturalised 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, George W Bush became the first president to address the nation from the Oval Office in prime-time on immigration – a reform effort that ultimately failed.  Just this month, his brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, was criticised by some for what were seen by others as more welcoming comments on immigration.
Today, America again has the opportunity to mend a broken system and set an example for Asia-Pacific nations that are also struggling with how best to welcome strangers to their shores and perhaps one day to turn them into new citizens.  In his remarks during his upcoming trip to Asia, Obama may well choose to acknowledge the contributions of the many Americans who themselves or their ancestors once called Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia or somewhere else in the region home.
An even better tribute would include the US president and Congress putting politics aside and focusing first on ensuring skilled immigrants can fully utilise their talents and education toward building an even stronger America.  This might be a small step forward but it can help build trust that will be critical for a larger deal.  High-skilled immigration reform also will be to the near-term benefit of the United States and its economy, as well as the many Asians seeking legally to build better lives there, and also provide a shining example to Asia – and to the nations of the AEC – that progress can still be made even on the most difficult issues.
Curtis S Chin, a former US 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.

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