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When it's mutually beneficial

One poll by a liberal-leaning think tank last week found that about two-thirds of Americans favor the main idea in Arizona's immigration reform: letting police notice illegal immigrants.

One poll by a liberal-leaning think tank last week found that about two-thirds of Americans favor the main idea in Arizona's immigration reform: letting police notice illegal immigrants.

This does not mean that two-thirds of America now hates immigrants. It's the "illegal" part that bothers them. If only we could fix that.

For that matter, the illegal immigrant himself is likely the least problematic part of illegal immigration. Most just want to make some money.

The problem is with the other uses to which illegal immigration is put. There are industries that habitually wink at suspiciously cheap help. A certain political party has made mascots of illegal immigrants in a play for the ethnic vote. The religious left uses them to look compassionate. The smuggling trade uses them as customers. Race radicals use them as a cause, as do restrictionists who claim America's too crowded.

What the country could use them for is as employees, which actually would be of mutual benefit. The real shame of the illegitimate use of illegal immigration is that it stymies our legitimate use of legal immigrants.

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Some immigrants, in fact, are especially useful. We should be letting more of them in, says Vivek Wadhwa, now a researcher at Harvard and Duke and an IT entrepreneur. He moved from India and started companies here. We could use more of that right now.

"There is a shortage of start-ups," he said. "There is a shortage of people starting up companies to make jobs."

Wadhwa is far from the only one saying this. American companies, including big ones in Milwaukee, have complained for years that it's difficult to bring in foreigners with talent. The annual quota of the sort of visa used, the H1-B, is routinely expended on the first day of availability. Vast numbers of foreigners who come to earn degrees cannot get permission to stay afterward.

Many pass through universities in the Midwest, a region that could desperately use some entrepreneurial energy, notes economist Bill Strauss of the Chicago Federal Reserve. Why not let them stay? "There are tremendous multipliers to immigration," he said.

Wadhwa has made a study of a particular problem, America's brain drain of highly educated foreigners. They're leaving, he says, because their homelands, especially China and India, now offer opportunity like never before. Besides, people miss relatives. There's some pull.

If only, Wadhwa argues, there weren't push from visa scarcity. "We're exporting our economic stimulus," he said.

Disentangle the immigration process for such educated people from the problem of illegal immigration, Wadhwa urges. Pick and choose. We could automatically give a green card, for instance, to anyone graduating with a master's or doctorate in sciences or math. "They're young, they're bright and they may do a lot of good for the country," he said. "This is a no-brainer."

There is an argument that massive immigration depresses wages, though good research suggests that it's not across the board. Federal Reserve economists found that high-skill immigrants actually tend to raise wages. That's Wadhwa's point, and it suggests a way forward on straightening out immigration overall.

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It is this: Start reforming immigration around the principle of first letting in people who will be useful, economically speaking. That would be honest, insofar as making money is why most people want to come here. It does not exclude low-skill immigrants: A country enriched by a tech boom can afford to hire more drywallers, too, and can even better accommodate unskilled peasants with ambition.

And neither does such a policy try telling Americans that immigration is some sort of charity we owe to strangers.

It is not. Immigration can and should be mutually beneficial. We should open the legal door wider for the obvious cases, and it will help us better sort through, eventually, the harder ones.

Copyright (c) 2010, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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