Sep 20, 2016 - 4:30pm

Debate Preview: What to Expect from Clinton and Trump on Immigration

Former Senior Vice President, Labor, Immigration, and Employee Benefits

We’re now less than a week away from the first of four scheduled debates in the presidential race – three between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and another featuring vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine.

While we hope these debates will tease out the specifics of each candidate’s plans, we have already heard a lot on the campaign trail about their key policy positions, and that offers some hints as to what we can expect to hear on stage Monday night. Drawing on their recent comments and published policy positions, we’re setting the stage for this first debate by analyzing the facts relevant to those positions and then highlighting what the American business community will be listening for during the debate.

Next up: Immigration.

Topic: High-Skill Immigration

Hillary Clinton: “The idea of a comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship that I would envision is one that would deal with a lot of these concerns, not just the 11 million people here… But I don’t want to mix that with other kinds of changes in visas and other concerns that particularly high-value technical companies have. In fact, I think keeping the pressure on them helps us resolve the bigger problem, and then we can look to see what else, if anything, can and should be done.” (June 22, 2016 interview with Vox)

American Businesses: This was an alarming comment from the former Secretary of State, essentially suggesting that the longstanding problems plaguing our nation’s high-skill immigration system are less urgent than (and can thus take a backseat to) those concerning America’s undocumented workers. Both issues are extremely important parts of the puzzle as lawmakers look for ways to pass legislation to enact commonsense immigration reforms – no matter what the legislative process looks like and how we address these challenges, both of these issues need to be addressed by Congress.  They need not be addressed in one fell swoop at the same time, but they are all deserving of Congress’ attention.

Donald Trump: “We graduate two times more Americans with STEM degrees each year than find STEM jobs, yet as much as two-thirds of entry-level hiring for IT jobs is accomplished through the H-1B program... Raising the prevailing wage paid to H-1Bs will force companies to give these coveted entry-level jobs to the existing domestic pool of unemployed native and immigrant workers in the U.S.” (Policy paper on Donald Trump’s website outlining the “core principles” of his immigration plan)

American Businesses: The notion that the U.S. graduates two times more Americans with degrees in STEM fields than can actually find STEM jobs is based upon some extremely misleading analysis that a) includes anthropology and medieval history degrees as STEM, b) looks at doctors and lawyers with STEM degrees as “not working in STEM,” and c) mixes together STEM occupations that require college degrees with other STEM occupations that do not require college degrees. In addition, it's worth noting that unemployment among U.S.-born professionals in the most prominent STEM occupations remains very low.

America cannot compete in a global economy without the world's best talent and most innovative minds, and the H-1B program is one of the best ways to attract those individuals. Once they’re here, they have an unmistakably positive impact on the American economy, as they have a high propensity for entrepreneurship, a strong record of innovation, and a history of creating thousands of new jobs for native-born American workers. We should be looking to strengthen this program, not cripple it.

Topic: An Employment Verification System

Donald Trump: “We will ensure that E-Verify is used to the fullest extent possible under existing law, and we will work with Congress to strengthen and expand its use across the country.” (Speech on immigration policies in Arizona on August 31, 2016)

American Businesses: This is an important but less-discussed component of the immigration debate, and it’s one we hope the candidates will discuss on Monday. America’s job creators need a workable employment verification system that will help them easily and efficiently determine whether they are able to hire a given candidate for one of their openings. However, the devil is in the details, and  while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has expressed support for a mandatory E-Verify system, that system must meet certain key conditions.

Topic: A Path to Citizenship

Hillary Clinton: There’s a lot of evidence that moving toward comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship would be good for our economy.” (June 22, 2016 interview with Vox).

American Businesses: This issue is critically important,  as no meaningful conversation on commonsense immigration reform can ignore the fact that we currently have 11 million people living within our borders who are not legally authorized to be here.  Of that 11 million, 7 million are currently in the U.S. workforce.  If the U.S. is ever going to ensure that it has a stable workforce without millions of unauthorized workers, then the law must be reformed to include a tough but fair process by which undocumented individuals living in the United States can earn a legal status.  Once again, it bears repeating that the legislative process is not nearly as important as tangible results, but the more that these individuals can participate in American life, the more they can contribute to our economy.

In short, our country’s future, from both an economic and security standpoint, will largely depend on our success in addressing these complex immigration challenges. We hope to hear more from both of the candidates on Monday about how exactly they would set about leading this charge as president.

Topic: The Wall

Donald Trump: “I will build a great wall -- and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I'll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border.” (Donald Trump announcing his candidacy for president on June 16, 2015)

American Businesses: Tough border security, including physical structures at the border, must be part of immigration reform. However, what’s being overlooked is that a wall dividing the U.S. and Mexico would not be a panacea for our immigration problems.  Erecting physical barriers on a nation’s border can be effective at preventing unauthorized entry, but history shows us that they have their limits. What we must realize is that any efforts to improve and better enforce our immigration laws and strengthen national security will be largely ineffective so long as our law enforcement tools and visa programs are impractical and unworkable.

Much has been done to improve the security of our southern border, but improvements can certainly be made.  However, new security initiatives must be complemented by effective visa programs, especially for workers in lesser-skilled occupations. Such programs would provide an orderly and legal means for immigrants seeking to enter the U.S. to fill unmet labor demands, reducing the incentive for future illegal immigration. The failure of current lesser-skilled visa programs means that the U.S. does not provide any workable, real-world alternative to unauthorized migration.  Establishing and revising such programs is, at the very least, just as important to deterring illegal immigration as is the construction of new fences, walls, or other physical barriers on our southern border.

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About the Author

Former Senior Vice President, Labor, Immigration, and Employee Benefits

Johnson is the former Senior Vice President, Labor, Immigration, and Employee Benefits.