Much was said about walls, borders and welfare during the immigration section of the Republican presidential debate in Ames, Iowa, on Thursday. But the most exceptional comment of the night on immigration came from former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney — the only mainstream candidate to endorse a specific immigration policy idea unrelated to enforcement — after a question on skilled foreign labor from the Washington Examiner’s Susan Ferrechio:
FERRECHIO: Governor Romney, turning to you, in 2008, you said you favored allowing American companies to hire more skilled foreign workers. With the unemployment rate now at 9.1 percent, do you still think that employers need to import more foreign labor?
ROMNEY: Well, of course not. We’re not looking to bring people in and — in jobs that can be done by Americans. But at the same time, we want to make sure that America is a home and welcome to the best and brightest in the world.
If someone comes here and gets a Ph.D in — in physics, that’s the person I’d like to staple a green card to their — to their diploma, rather than saying to them to go home.
Instead, we let people come across our border illegally or stay here and overstay their visa. They get to stay in the country. I want the best and brightest to be metered into the country based upon the needs of our employment sector and create jobs by bringing technology and innovation that comes from people around the world.
Romney has used the “stapling a green card” line before many times, both in this campaign and in his 2008 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. Despite being the preferred candidate for many immigration enforcement hawks who distrusted Romney’s opponent Sen. John McCain, Romney joined McCain in voicing strong support for giving foreign students at U.S. graduate schools permanent residence.
Indeed, “stapling a green card to their diploma” has become a catchphrase for high-skilled immigration reformers. It’s a policy strongly favored by many Silicon Valley and high-tech firms, whose workforce is disproportionately foreign-born. It’s even inspired the name of a bill, the STAPLE Act, repeatedly introduced by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Flake’s bill, which has both Democratic and Republican cosponsors, grants an exemption to the cap on permanent visas to any Ph.D graduate in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).
Permanent residency for U.S. Ph.D grads is one of the few policy ideas that establishment Republicans and business lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce see as something that shouldn’t cause much partisan friction and thus can be dealt with on its own. But Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) who chairs the immigration subcommittee in the Senate, have rejected the idea of pushing high-skilled immigration reform bills, such as the STAPLE Act, without a comprehensive reform effort that also deals with issues related to low-skilled and undocumented immigration. And many tea party and conservative Republicans reject the idea of any immigration reform, including the STAPLE Act, without further border security measures.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the chair of the House immigration subcommittee, this year introduced the IDEA Act, which goes further than the STAPLE Act by expanding permanent residency visas for foreign-born entrepreneurs and STEM workers. Not a single Republican has endorsed Lofgren’s bill.
Nevertheless, Lofgren’s bill has strong support among high-tech companies, which have signaled impatience with the GOP’s current enforcement-only ideology. Unusually, these companies have given more to Democrats than to Republicans, and in particular to Democrats who care about issues such as high-skilled immigration. This can be seen in the strong support Lofgren receives from Silicon Valley: Computer- and internet-related industries were far and away the top donors to her 2010 campaign, and no single House candidate received more from internet-related companies than Lofgren in the 2009-2010 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
It’s clear that among the GOP candidates currently running for president, Romney is Silicon Valley’s pick. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, computer- and internet related industries have donated $145,805 to Romney’s campaign in this election cycle, more than any other candidate except for Barack Obama. But whether Romney will continue to toe the strict “border security first” line that has become a tenet of GOP and tea party orthodoxy by endorsing, even in the smallest way, policy innovations like STAPLE remains to be seen. With the entrance of Gov. Rick Perry (Texas), himself a candidate with an ambiguous history on immigration, into the GOP primary, the question of whether enforcement-only is a necessary position for a GOP presidential candidate may become a salient issue in the weeks and months to come.