Having an Asian face with a U.S. ambassador title, I am often asked “where I am really from.” Or perhaps more politely, whether I am “nissei” or “sansei” — or just how many generations back did my family emigrate from Asia to the United States? I am generally forgiving, even to the comments of how “good” my English is, as no ill will is intended. And often it reflects the speaker’s own experiences, American or not, with immigration and immigrants.
For numerous countries in the Asia-Pacific region, immigration remains a contentious issue. Consider Australia’s controversial efforts to intercept at sea a new generation of “boat people” fleeing impoverished, strife-torn nations. Or reflect on Japan’s own much-documented immigration laws effectively barring many ethnic Koreans from becoming citizens despite years of living, and indeed being born, in that country.
Even in my own country, perhaps the nation best known as a land of immigrants and their descendants, the debate rages on. U.S. President Barack Obama, due back in Asia soon, and his predecessor George W. Bush have been unable to move a recalcitrant Congress, split between Republicans and Democrats, to act on immigration.
There is at least one area where all political parties should be able to come together for some meaningful, near-term action. That is focusing on the untapped potential of the many skilled men and women who have already come to the U.S. through legal channels. This includes tens of thousands from India, China and elsewhere in Asia.
Unfortunately this issue has generally been overlooked amid the focus on the flow of unauthorized, low-skilled immigrants into the U.S. — the vast majority of them from south of the border but also including numerous unskilled immigrants from Asia and elsewhere
The language of immigration today also is increasingly politicized, adding little to a constructive discussion: Illegal versus undocumented, amnesty versus a path to citizenship.
In the slow-to-no-growth global economy, whether in the U.S., Europe or Asia, politicians too often fear the consequences of action, not inaction. Some worry about the impact on core labor constituencies of potential competition by low-wage immigrants. Others ponder what numerous new citizens of Asian and Latino origin will mean for future elections. Yet, this larger, ongoing U.S. debate — and admittedly an important one — on immigration should not stand in the way of making smaller-scale updates to what has been the traditional path forward for many seeking the American dream.
For skilled immigrants who were doctors, lawyers or other professionals in their countries of origin, first jobs in the U.S. typically take little to no advantage of their full skill-set given licensing or accreditation requirements. The anecdotes are legion and legend: the taxi driver from India who was once an engineer, or the nanny from the Philippines who had worked as a nurse back home.
The story is as old as America. Immigrants sacrifice, and ultimately succeed in building better lives for their children. That was certainly the story shared among many in my own family as some 120 people, descendants of Chinese immigrants of many decades past, came together last August in Seattle for our first ever family reunion.
Like many a Pacific Northwest family, the occupations and preoccupations were varied: from Seattle public school teacher to Boeing engineer to my own recent service as one of the few U.S. ambassadors of Chinese heritage. By some counts, I am the fourth; Gary Locke, the former U.S. ambassador to China, U.S. commerce secretary and Washington state governor, is the fifth.
Many in our extended family gathered again earlier this year in Yakima, Washington, to remember and celebrate the life of a great aunt, Jade Hong Chin, who recently passed away and who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1947 to be united with her husband, Calvin, after World War II had separated them.
Her and other tales of immigrant life, of separation and of coming together, and of becoming American will not change and will be echoed in future tales of others. But what could well change, with bipartisan support in Washington, is movement on an effort focused first on immigrant integration — separate and distinct from the contentious issue of immigrant admissions.
Addressing the “brain waste” of an estimated 1.5 million college-educated immigrants either unemployed or employed in relatively unskilled jobs also will help America better utilize the nation’s diversity of human capital. This also should not detract from the critical challenge of job creation and ensuring all Americans can build careers in today’s economy.
The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute — a Washington think tank focused on analysis of the movement of people worldwide — has in the past noted America’s uneven progress in integrating skilled immigrants. Policy implications could include a greater focus on state workforce agency partnerships and on advancing accredited work-skills training and English-language programs. At the federal level, incentives could well be provided for more effective bridging programs for America’s underutilized talent.
One such program doing so, supported by World Education Services — a research organization focused on international education and credential evaluation and on whose board I sit — is aptly called “pathways to success.”
This effort includes seminars offering practical advice and resources to skilled immigrants on how to further pursue education, obtain professional licensing or certification, and find suitable employment in the U.S.
Last December, the U.S. marked the 70th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That act of Congress had singled out an ethnic group for immigration exclusion, prohibited legal Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens, and relegated them to second-class status.
Those times thankfully are behind us even though some may well raise fears about new waves of immigrants hitting the shores of an ever-changing America.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a sweeping immigration reform bill into law. In 2006, President George W. Bush became the first to address the nation from the Oval Office in prime-time on immigration — a reform effort that ultimately failed. Just this month, his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was criticized by some for what were seen by others as more welcoming comments on immigration.
Today, America again has the opportunity to mend a broken system and set an example for Asia-Pacific nations that are also struggling with how best to welcome strangers to their shores and perhaps one day to turn them into new citizens. In his remarks during his upcoming trip to Asia, Obama may well choose to acknowledge the contributions of the many Americans who themselves or their ancestors once called Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia or somewhere else in the region home.
An even better tribute would include the U.S. president and Congress putting politics aside and focusing first on ensuring skilled immigrants can fully utilize their talents and education toward building an even stronger America.
This might be a small step forward, but it can help build trust that will be crucial for a larger deal. High-skilled immigration reform also will be to the near-term benefit of the U.S. and its economy, as well as the many Asians seeking legally to build better lives there, and also provide a shining example to Asia that progress can still be made even on the most difficult issues.
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-2010), is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.
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