The mystic chords of memory…will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature ~ Abraham Lincoln, 1st Inaugural Address
My roommate is about to be deported. A 2011 graduate of Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, he moved down to Washington, D.C. because he had gotten a job promoting U.S. trade relations with his native Southeast Asia. Using his knowledge of economics, he has worked with large U.S. companies seeking growth opportunities in the area of the world from which he came to study at F&M. Because his organization was derelict in their filing of H1-B visa paperwork, Mike’s (as I’ll call him here) application was one day late. ONE DAY! This week, the U.S. Immigration Office issued its 65,000th H1-B, reaching the arbitrary quota set by our arcane immigration laws.
It may seem odd to begin a post on immigration with a Lincoln quote from 1861, but the sentiment of Lincoln’s words speak directly to what I’m trying to articulate here: immigration is about what kind of country we want to be. This debate is about how we react to those who move from foreign countries to America for the purposes of academics, employment and even just a fresh start. This right has special meaning in our country because we’re all immigrants, every last one of us save a few remaining Native Americans. My maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Scotland; his wife was of the first American born generation from a family of Scots. My paternal grandfather and grandmother both came from families of first-adopters — English citizens who had come to America in the 16th Century and pursued the fresh land west of the Appalachians. You may be European, Central or Southern American, Asian, Middle-Eastern or African, but your story is similar — an immigrant story.
Mike is a college grad, doing quality work at an American organization promoting the business interests of American companies. His work building relationships with Southeast Asian leaders opens up markets for sale of U.S. products, expanding U.S. exports. For those keeping score, this is the kind of work that creates jobs — right here, in America. Mike doesn’t want to go back home, we’ve talked at length about how he loves America. He loves our work ethic, our belief in a better tomorrow earned through sweat equity. He loves our culture too; he’s an addict of the TV show How I Met Your Mother. He’s the kind of person Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wins over with her use of “smart power.”
Mike isn’t a tech geek; he’s not going to invent the next Facebook. We should “staple green cards” to the diplomas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates from foreign countries. But, that’s not just it. International students in the humanities, in business and the social sciences, should get expedited hearing for work visas also. Mike is just as valuable as his STEM counterparts; Mike makes America a better place too. We should thank him by, at least, making it possible to stay right here in Washington expanding American business potential in growing markets.
President Lincoln spoke in that first speech of his Presidency about “the better angles of our nature.” He was talking about the beginnings of the Civil War, perhaps the darkest chapter of American History. But what that war was about is what this immigration debate is about: how do we define what it means to be an American, and how do we Americans build a greater community with those from outside who wish to join our great project in self-government. Though illegal immigration is a question to be dealt with, Mike’s situation isn’t even about that. Mike came here legally to study at a university Pennsylvanians and all Americans should be proud of without restraint. Mike wants to be a part of our country, at least for the time that he can do great work here — while he can make America better.
So, on a sad week, with only a few months left to enjoy life in D.C. with a new friend, I am left with many questions. Why should we cap H1-B visas as long as the applications pass muster? Why do we make the application process excessively difficult, time-consuming and a hassle to employers? Why should Mike have to beg to stay when, given his addition to our country, we should be begging him to stay? On these, I am without answers. I am left to question how we can reform the system, listening to our “better angels” and building a greater America brightened by the talent of passionate people from around the world — for the 21st Century as we did the 20th, the 19th, and long since then.