Hanging in the Balance: Education and Immigration Reform

Though it is not often heard in political discourse, the term ‘justice’ is fundamental to all political debates because it reflects the ideological divide.  Should the government get out of the way and help foster an economic system in which each individual has the opportunity to create a better life for themselves?  Or should government take a more aggressive approach by mandating equality, social justice, and social progress?

This dichotomy on the size and role of government is the fundamental debate of our political system, and the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744) winding its way through the legislative process provides a fascinating glimpse into this debate.  Why?  Because the two major education provisions in the bill each address the issue of education from divergent justice perspectives.

First, the data. While immigrants make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they provide a disproportionate benefit to the U.S. economy. The foreign-born population comprise 16 percent of the workforce, 18 percent of small business owners, 24 percent of U.S. patent holders, and 40 percent of Fortune 500 company founders.

As the Fiscal Policy Institute points out, while only 27 percent of the foreign-born population has a bachelor’s degree, those degree holders account for 42 percent of foreign-born small business owners.  A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development revealed that 18 percent of foreign college students study in the United States, by far the highest percentage in the world.  Another fascinating study by Rutgers University economist Jennifer Hunt found that “an increase of one percentage point in the share of immigrants in the population aged 11-64 increases the probability that natives aged 11-17 eventually complete 12 years of schooling by 0.3 percentage points.”

In other words, the data reflect a foreign-born population that works, creates small businesses, and drives innovation at a higher rate than the native-born population and makes more of the educational opportunities provided to them.

As policymakers seek a comprehensive fix to the immigration system, they have focused on two main education provisions. The American Action Forum and Hispanic Leadership Network put together a great summary of the bill (disclosure: I worked in immigration policy for AAF).

Two provisions deal with education.  The first—the so-called DREAM Act—allows the children of unauthorized immigrants who arrived here before the age of 16 and have at least a high school diploma to apply for Legal Permanent Resident status after only five years of Registered Provisional Immigrant status. This provision would allow them to obtain in-state status when applying to state universities.

The second education provision increases the percentage of employment  visas granted to immigrant students who receive an advanced degree, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields from 28.6 percent to 40 percent. While some argue in favor of what’s been called a “Staple Visa” (a green card is figuratively stapled to every diploma in STEM field), and others argue that it should apply to undergraduate education as well, the Senate immigration bill simply raises the percentage of high-skilled visas allotted to foreign-born STEM degree holders.

The DREAM Act reflects a more activist policy, with the government mandating equality for individuals whom some believe do not deserve it. The STEM provisions, meanwhile, reflect a more conservative policy, allowing the government to reward and promote the efforts of those who have studied at American universities (supported by tax dollars) and who can add value to the U.S. economy.

But as the data shows, both of these groups are at the forefront of our changing economy. The foreign-born population has been a driving force behind American entrepreneurship and innovation, creating small and large businesses alike. And in a way, both policies reflect both positions on the size and role of government—they enforce both social and economic justice.

But rather than laud this fact and embrace policies that can boost growth and bring stability to the lives of millions of Americans who unknowingly participated in a criminal act, many conservative politicians hide behind their particular justice ideology to score political points.

The irony, however, is that while Republican opponents of immigration reform believe they are representing the views of the base, which is predominantly white and evangelical, the evangelical movement largely supports this bill. The Evangelical Immigration Table, a group formed by the National Association of Evangelicals, released a letter that outlines their position on immigration, emphasizing that comprehensive reform is both necessary and in line with biblical principles.

They call for a bill that “Respects the God-given dignity of every person, Protects the unity of the immediate family, Respects the rule of law, Guarantees secure national borders, Ensures fairness to taxpayers, Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.”

From a public policy perspective, education can be the silver bullet - it gives people the opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills to make a better life for themselves.  And the education provisions in the immigration bill are a great step towards providing opportunity to millions of Americans.  But we should also think about the broader perspective, particularly as Christians.

Current law, as it exists today, does not provide equal opportunity to all people.  We have a significant group of immigrants who are either barred from receiving in-state status for higher education (so-called Dreamers) or who come from overseas to study in the United States and are sent home after graduation.  These realities reflect policies that fail to satisfy the Evangelical Immigration Table’s call for a bill that “respects the God-given dignity of every person” and “ensures fairness to taxpayers.”  

The education provisions, in particular, reflect an ideal balance between economic self-interest and social fairness. They mandate both free-market justice and social justice, exactly the balance that we and our political leaders should support.

-Chris Hartline graduated from Houghton College in 2012 with a degree in history and political science