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Immigration debate ignores highly skilled black workers

Charles D. Ellison

As a two-year budget conjures up illusions of congressional comity and President Obama is desperate for a legislative recharge, there is much hype about a big immigration deal on the horizon. But, despite the huge political, economic and cultural implications for the country, black folks have little skin in the game.

How did that happen?

It’s no secret Democrats and Republicans view immigration as their default key to Latino-voter gold. The immigration conversation is the gateway campaign drug that most political strategists assume will bag their candidates tons of brown voters for years to come. Hispanic elected officials also accept it, cynically, as political raison d’être and leveraging. Black voters, in case you missed it, are so 20th century — even though they consistently outperform in most election cycles.

But, perhaps more significant and less reported is Silicon Valley dropping obscene amounts of cash on Washington lobbying and campaign cycles to get immigration fixed. Soon after a 2012 election cycle in which the information-technology sector funneled more than $200 million in campaign contributions to candidate coffers, immigration has started heating up as a major issue again — although only 4 percent of Americans (and, get this, only 8 percent of Hispanics) identify it as their “most important issue.”

The alignment of tech-industry dominance in politics — which now outspends defense contractors — with the emergence of immigration reform as a key Washington priority is no accident. Silicon Valley (figuratively known) is pressed bad for an immigration fix. Through the government’s H-1B visa program, highly skilled foreigners with digital talents can share their expertise with American companies. The problem, however, is demand outstripping bureaucratic capacity: H1-B visas are capped at an annual 85,000 slots, with the latest Senate-passed compromise promising more than double that. That’s not enough, apparently, considering H-1B visa workers fill more than half of all IT jobs in the U.S.

So, when IT companies talk reform, the focus typically falls on Asian workers from far-flung places. And despite the current national fad pushing native-born Americans into technology careers, Silicon Valley kings don’t have time for that: They need skilled labor now as the digital space grows rapidly.

But there’s a missing piece in the political jigsaw puzzle that is immigration reform. It is black immigrants who, according to Pew, comprise nearly 10 percent of the total foreign-born population. You’d never know that based on the pre-baked parameters of the current debate.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, black Diaspora immigrants (especially African immigrants) are among the highest-educated, English-proficient and highest-skilled of migrant populations in the U.S. — with many highly qualified for those same tech jobs. An oft-cited State University of New York study goes bold: African migrants are, actually, more educated than Asian migrants. That drops dynamite on rigidly held notions and stereotypes about race and intelligence. African migrants even out-degree white immigrants from Europe, Russia and Canada 44 percent to 29 percent.

But while African and Caribbean migrants represent one of the fastest growing and most super-educated migrant groups in the nation, they are also a lost population, relying heavily on the fate of “diversity visas” in cluttered immigration-reform legislation to determine their future here. And, obviously, immigration reform is not high on the U.S. black agenda priority list. High unemployment and other bad stuff can easily distract an American black family. As a result, immigration is not receiving needed attention, despite the fast-growing share of the population that African and Caribbean migrants account for in major black communities in places such as New York, Miami and Washington, D.C.

So when House Speaker John Boehner recently signaled an opening to revive immigration-reform prospects, there was little sense that Congressional leaders would be checking in with the Congressional Black Caucus to get their take on it. The tiny and informal bipartisan House “Gang of 8” that’s tasked itself to craft a bill has tinkered along for a while now without any black members on it, save CBC input graciously channeled through fellow Democrats who promise solids one way or the other.

But, since out of sight is out of mind, their role is largely uncertain. Perhaps that calculus dramatically changes depending on what pressure, if any, black migrant advocates in predominantly black Congressional districts can bring. Something needs to change soon: Persuading the tech sector to include tech-skilled black Diaspora migrants in the debate might be a good place to kick and push. (Maybe that will happen since newly elected Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is the top recipient of that sector’s political cash.) But once deals are cut, bills are passed and outcomes take shape, many could end up — once again — on the short end of the political stick.

The Root

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root.