President Obama’s second term is an opportunity to sculpt a legacy unencumbered by reelection concerns. Today’s political climate, with persistent economic weakness and divided government, suggests that policies providing economic growth and bipartisan appeal could provide relatively open opportunities for the administration. Immigration and education reform, in particular, are two policy issues in desperate need of lasting change that would benefit from support on both sides of the aisle.
Immigration has always been a strength of the U.S., but economic hardship and an intense election have unleashed divisive language. Discussions focus on two primary points: the issue of undocumented workers currently in the U.S., and the volume and caliber of future immigrants. President Obama must reassert the importance of immigration to our society, and his ability to clearly narrate its value across all spectrums of the economy will be just as key to reform as negotiating with Congress. He included immigration reform in his 2008 campaign promises but has not yet delivered. This is a fact that Hispanic voters, who represent a large and growing bloc of voters that traditionally vote Democratic, have not forgotten. It is especially prudent for him to recommit to the issue now.
There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., the majority of whom assume low-wage functions. Studies contradict the popular narrative that immigrants steal American jobs and increase crime, instead suggesting that they perform tasks that Americans are unwilling or unable to do and actually correlate with low violent crime rates. Immigrants also tend to be more entrepreneurial, creating the new businesses and relationships that are crucial to the modern economy. Since they are here illegally, they do not have full access to our legal and economic system, making every aspect of life more fraught with uncertainty and open to abuse, by both employee and employer.
It is increasingly clear that deporting undocumented workers en masse would be cruel, costly, economically destructive, and in all certainty impossible to execute. By accepting the critical role they play in our economy, Washington must provide a clear path toward attaining legal status and citizenship. Clear expectations will help to standardize the transition out of the shadow economy for millions of workers, as well as give them legal access to worker protection and recourse against contract abuse. Increasing the amount of activity that takes place within the confines of our laws will help to protect everyone.
Some cities, such as Los Angeles, are already experimenting with ways to bring undocumented workers into some type of legal framework. While commendable, these attempts are hardly clear or comprehensive. Having a national framework can bring best practices acquired across different state approaches together and reduce the confusion of myriad different rules, structures, and level of enforcement. Immigration is a federal issue, and President Obama needs to demonstrate again that Washington can take the leadership role that is required of it.
Today’s political climate offers an opportunity. Stakeholders across the political spectrum, such as human rights activists, labor-intensive industries, religious organizations, and minority groups, are increasingly vocal about the importance and justice of immigration reform. When even stalwart conservative commentators can use the word “amnesty”, the potential for a broad coalition of support is high.
Looking beyond the millions of undocumented, unskilled workers already in the U.S., the nation needs to reaffirm its role as the premiere destination for the world’s highly educated and highly skilled looking for a new home. American universities are still the standard for those seeking the best education in the world, but other countries and institutions are catching up. Increasingly, foreign students find returning to their country of origin after graduation more appealing and less complicated than trying to stay in the U.S.
This reverse brain drain is especially prevalent among the highly educated Indian community in the U.S., where many come to the U.S. to seek opportunities in higher education, but return to capitalize on the dynamism of their emerging market homeland. Increasingly, it is seen as a competitive advantage to be educated in India and America, a sign that our universities are losing some of the broad appeal they once had.
Global companies, both foreign- and U.S.-based, are chasing minds wherever they go and valuing the global background of these individuals who are easily able to handle cross-cultural situations in the workplace. Making it easier for those who come to study in the U.S. to stay and contribute both to the economy and the diversity that strengthens liberal society will signal to the global community that America understands that the key factor to economic growth is human capital. Attracting and retaining top talent who will thrive in the U.S.’s entrepreneurial environment should be a high priority across industry and government.
Welcoming the highly skilled does not mean abandoning the government’s commitment to increasing educational opportunities to Americans, but it does mean preparing them to compete in a globalized world that shows no signs of slowing in interconnectedness. Whereas immigration requires a clear hands-on policy approach, improving higher education will depend on the government largely taking a back seat and instead incentivizing increasingly affordable and accessible learning.
Low test scores, persistent high school and college dropout rates, rising college tuition costs, and slipping competitive advantage are just a sampling of concerns that need to be addressed. Whereas improving our educational system and making it more widely accessible is a goal shared by every policymaker, there is very little agreement on how best to achieve this. Exactly because of this uncertainty, new ideas and innovative technology must be allowed to permeate our educational systems. The administration should encourage policies and frameworks that make both easier to implement. Innovation and experimentation will enable education in the U.S. to adapt to the needs of the modern economy and enjoy unprecedented democratization of access.
The “College to Careers” initiative in the City Colleges of Chicago illustrates one way that educational innovation is emphasizing employable skills. The program partners city colleges and local industry leaders to help develop curricula to provide knowledge and skills that better align with business needs. Growing industries, such as information technology, hospitality, and advanced manufacturing in turn gain access to potentially tens of thousands of students and future employees.
In fact, industry partners commit to interviewing or hiring students who successfully complete the curriculum that they helped to design. Such partnerships promise to tie education more closely to the skills needed in our rapidly changing economy. Increased opportunities for hands-on learning, internships, and professional guidance will help to ensure that students continue to learn marketable skills and gain valuable industry-specific experience. This also leads to more predictable and stable hiring, beneficial for company forecasting and employee confidence in job placement. Programs such as these can and should be replicated in other cities.
However, opportunities for education are not by any means limited to major urban areas. Access to inexpensive and quality educational material has never been better. Online education is still in its infancy, but its growth and maturation promises to radically democratize all levels of learning. At the university level, for-profit companies such as Coursera are earning media attention and investment by aggregating quality online classes from the best universities. MIT has been an early proponent of increasing the amount of free material online, and they cut out the middleman by offering courses directly through their OpenCourseWare platform. MIT’s leadership has inspired other well-known institutions around the world to provide additional content, providing a breadth of global perspectives.
Coursera, OpenCourseWare, and other providers of online education are opportunities for Americans to gain new applicable skills and knowledge that lead to employment, as well as a window to explore other areas of interest without the same costs and commitment of a traditional college education. The potential for cross-disciplinary learning to encourage collaboration is the exact recipe for new ideas and business ventures that will drive economic progress.
Accreditation and other issues need to be resolved before such courses can legitimately compete with brick-and-mortar educational programs, but the government can help by mostly staying out of the way. A Minnesota state law passed last fall regarding educational institutions caused some confusion over whether residents could legally take advantage of Coursera offerings. Although the issue was quickly resolved, states and the federal government should be proactive in assuring that quality and free online offerings are by default free of fettering regulation.
At the heart of both immigration and education reform is the recognition of the important investments the U.S. must make in its economy and society. Acting now would help to take advantage of election results, both in terms of a reinvigorated Democratic base and in Republicans looking to tack away from problematic party stances. Lasting change, in the end, requires a certain amount of bipartisan support. By tackling immigration and encouraging innovation in education, President Obama can solidify his legacy while laying the groundwork for economic success, providing opportunities for Democrats and Republicans to build consensus together to accomplish real change.
Kyle Thompson-Westra is a city analyst at Groupon and a co-founder of YPFP Chicago. Lynn Nguyen is currently a senior consultant with Deloitte’s U.S. Global Office. She co-founded YPFP in Chicago and has since migrated eastward to DC.