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Help cities by focusing on economic realities of immigration

As a mayor, I've been fortunate to learn many new things. One thing I didn't expect to learn is the aerospace and agriculture industries in Arizona have very similar challenges.

An executive with an aerospace company once talked about the many challenges he faced in his business. He told the story of a talented graduate student from a major university who worked on a project with the company as part of his studies. The student demonstrated incredible skill, and the company wanted to hire him when he graduated. Unfortunately, the student was unable to obtain a visa, and he returned home to his native country. The manager lamented that while Arizona taxpayers had subsidized the education of this excellent student, they will not reap the benefits of his unique talents. Now, the student likely works for a company that competes with American businesses.

Another business leader, a farmer from southwestern Arizona also spoke of the challenges he faced making his operation successful. He talked about not being able to harvest his valuable lettuce crop in a timely manner. He lost a large amount of money as his crop literally rotted in the field. Although he had raised wages to unprecedented levels, he could not attract a sufficient number of field laborers. Workers who used to cross the border to pick the crops were no longer able to do so.

These are two stories in different industries. One is high-tech aerospace and the other high-value perishable food. One hires highly skilled, high-wage workers and the other low-skill, low-wage workers. But the problem is virtually the same. Both industries have challenges hiring enough Americans to meet their unique labor needs. Both suffer from an immigration system that is broken, out of date, and fails to recognize the realities of the world in which we live.

As we debate immigration policy in this country, we don't tend to talk much about how important immigration is to our economic future. We tend to focus more on who we want to either keep out or kick out, and not enough on who we should be letting in or letting stay. We also concentrate on costs allegedly incurred by illegal immigrants, while failing to recognize the significant cost to the American economy when we lose opportunities to include talented and productive immigrants in our workforce.

We have a lot to do to make the system work. For example, Canada issues more visas to highly skilled workers than the U.S. even though its population is less than the state of California. Meanwhile, talented "Dreamers" who were brought here as children, who have known no other country than America, and who could contribute immediately to U.S. economic growth are essentially kept out of both higher education and the work force. The American economy and each of us are hurt when we fail to find permanent solutions for these glaring holes in our system.

Congress can help America's cities by focusing its efforts on solutions that deal with the economic realities we face. Interestingly, by taking an economic approach, legitimate questions about the rule of law, fairness, and compassion can also be more easily resolved. This can create an immigration solution that is good for all of us.

Scott Smith is the Mayor of Mesa.

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