Education / Immigration / Regulation

Self-Evident? Walking the path to Citizenship in the United States

Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft together form a vanguard assembly of tech giants known to foster excited anticipation for 21st century innovation. However, at the tail end of 2012 these industry leaders all placed their signatures next to one another on a letter expressing support for a contemporary center-piece of American Politics: Immigration Reform.

Up for debate at the time was the now-stalled STEM Jobs Act. This legislation was tailored to the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) industries and would have made it easier for those skilled immigrants seeking education in the United States to stay and apply their knowledge in careers based in the U.S. Following steep criticism from an Obama Administration averse to narrowly tailored reforms rather than comprehensive legislation, the Senate left the bill to flounder.

The tech industry has hardly been silenced. Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Electronics Association explains the importance of making it easier for highly skilled workers to bring their talents to U.S. shores, noting a recent study, which found that a foreign born worker with a degree from a U.S. university will create 2.6 American jobs.

This number may seem small or difficult to conceptualize, but the reality is that STEM jobs have grown at three times the rate of non-STEM jobs in the past decade with no sign of slowing down. Expanding beyond STEM industries, the Kaufman Foundation explains that at least a quarter of current American businesses were founded by immigrants. These firms employed half a million Americans in 2012 and reported $63 billion in sales.

This investment potential represents a vast yet often ignored resource in modern America, the basic aspiration of the educated immigrant wishing to remain in the United States legally to contribute to the national economy.

The unfortunate caveat to these numbers is that of the 11 million legal permanent residents in the U.S., only 8 percent of those eligible actually sought citizenship in 2011. A new study from the American Action Forum may explain this dearth of applications by shedding light on the regulatory burden now crippling the immigration process by leaving significant yet often hidden hurdles along the track.

The AAF study documents the path an immigrant must walk to citizenship in the United States. An immigrant standing proudly at his or her citizenship ceremony will have just completed a fifteen year journey that required 16 forms, contacting three different federal agencies, and spending at least $2500. The central hub of the immigration process, the Department of Homeland Security, maintains a database of 100 different forms applicable to various immigrant activities and aspirations. The temporal burden of filling out these forms equates to 81 million hours of paperwork levied on the national economy, imposing a cost of $26.9 billion.

Leaving aside the actual information collection costs of these forms, much of this paperwork requires application fees. The basic application for naturalization imposes a non-returnable fee of $680 for consideration, a fee that has tripled since 1999. Applying the federal minimum wage, a family of four would require two months of saving to afford the application. For high skilled workers, whose talents are held hostage by this regime of regulatory red-tape, the AAF study catalogues:

  • Application to the Department of Labor for H-1B Visa: $135 and three forms;
  • Petition to DHS to work in the U.S.: $371 and one form;
  • Application to DHS for employment authorization: $200 and two forms;
  • Application to the Department of State for a visa: $140 and four forms;
  • Verification of employment by DHS (I-9): $31 and three forms;
  • Green Card application to DHS for permanent residency: $1,000 and two forms;

These costs are sobering and it is easy to understand why many choose not to pursue citizenship. The current U.S. regulatory regime concludes the education of talented individuals from around the world by sending them home, depriving the national economy of the reward of creative innovation that can be offered by these bright and talented immigrants.

Amidst the broad and sweeping language that often swirls around the topic of immigration reform, the numbers above exist to hopefully remind decision-makers that this debate need not diverge from efforts to produce economic recovery.  Fixing this costly regulatory maze will unlock an important piece of the talent that America’s education system has worked hard to cultivate.