The country needs to get immigration right

 |   Brad Smith - President

This is rapidly becoming a momentous week in the history of immigration for the United States. As the House of Representatives prepares to vote on two major bills, we need our elected officials to get things right. In part, we need Congress to address the DREAMers and those affected by the green card backlog. We need improved security at the border. And perhaps more than anything, we need Congress to remember the fundamental decency and humanitarian spirit that defines us as a people and a nation. In short, we need to take care of children.

In our view, to do this well, Congress has more work to do. Because neither bill the House will consider fully strikes the balance the nation needs.

We recognize that immigration is a complex and all too often polarizing topic. There are many experts with great knowledge and important insights, and we constantly learn from listening to their views.

But this is a topic for which we believe we have important things to share.

As much as any business in the country – and one that generates one of the nation’s leading export surpluses – Microsoft is a company of immigrants in a nation of immigrants. A high majority of our employees grew up in the United States. Like most Americans, most of us have ancestors that came from someplace else. Microsoft also has employees who have moved here from more than 120 other countries, including lawful permanent residents, high-skilled immigrants on the path to a green card, and DREAMers. This has made Microsoft something akin to “the United Nations of Software.”

As is the case for the nation, we believe the diversity of our employees is one of our greatest strengths. We appreciate, as few companies can, that a healthy immigration policy is important from a humanitarian perspective and serves as a vital engine of the nation’s economic growth.

Reflecting this perspective, for more than a decade we’ve made the protection of children in immigration proceedings one of Microsoft’s signature civic initiatives. In 2008 we co-founded one of the nation’s premier organizations focused on representing in immigration proceedings children that have been separated from their families, Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND. Its mission is to provide pro bono legal support for unaccompanied children, many of whom are fleeing some of the most dangerous countries in the world. Today KIND partners with 533 law firms, companies, law schools and bar associations. It has trained more than 25,000 lawyers, and currently more than 5,000 lawyers are volunteering their time to represent more than 5,000 kids. In addition to generous donations from our employees, the company has donated more than $10 million dollars since the organization’s inception.

KIND’s goal is not to ensure that every child gets to stay in the United States. Rather it is to ensure that every child’s case is heard by an informed immigration judge, so those who are legally entitled to stay win the right to do so. When children lose their case and are deported, as they sometimes do, KIND works to encourage humanitarian provisions in a home country to take them back and keep them safe.

I’ve had the good fortune to chair the KIND board since it was founded. I’ve talked with countless kids the organization represents, learned about the causes of their flights, visited detention centers in the United States, and ridden with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents as they drove along the border with Mexico. This gives us not just a point of view about the current issues at the border, but real practical knowledge about what is going on.

All of this, from our corporate to our pro bono experience, informs our views on the two pieces of legislation that Congress will consider.

One bill the House will vote upon – the Securing America’s Future Act (H.R. 4760) – plainly represents the wrong approach. It undermines the ability for unaccompanied children to express their need for protection and replaces child-oriented oversight and care with prolonged detention for children in adult facilities.  It has limited relief for a subset of DREAMers with no path to citizenship. And the bill criminalizes immigration violations and dramatically cuts legal immigration to an extent not seen since the 1920s.

The newly introduced bill – the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018 (H.R. 6136) – is better, but it needs to be improved in significant ways, including by requiring the administration to end the changes it instituted in April to separate children from their families at the border.

On the one hand, the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018 proposed by House Republican leadership is intended as a compromise between Republican factions in that chamber. It includes important reforms for our employees and industry which we’ve advocated vigorously for many years. We welcome these specific reforms, which include provisions that:

  • Eliminate unfair per-country limits for employment-based green cards by incorporating the bipartisan Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, led by Rep. Kevin Yoder (H.R. 392). This would have a positive impact for our employees and our company by helping to ease the lengthy green card backlog that otherwise would cause some of our colleagues to wait more than 20 years for their visa, simply because of the country of their birth.
  • Increase the number of employment-based green cards to further reduce the backlog and recognize the needs of the modern economy for the world’s top talent. The existing employment-based green card limits have not been updated for nearly 30 years. Improvements are long overdue.
  • Provide a path to permanent residence and citizenship for DACA-eligible individuals. This would provide welcome clarity and a path for eventual citizenship for our DACA employees and the hundreds of thousands of other young individuals who are seeking to contribute to this country. This legislation would provide a permanent legislative solution, as Microsoft and its business coalitions have been seeking for the past year.
  • Improve security at the border. While we would not endorse every provision in the bill relating to increased security, we recognize that stronger security is needed. There are parts of the border with Mexico where more U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents are needed and other security protections should be improved. I was struck when I visited a CBP command center near the border in March and saw agents relying on computing technology that I personally used almost a decade ago.

Unfortunately, the bill also includes provisions that cause serious concern:

  • Protecting children. There’s been a lot of political rhetoric this week about who is responsible for this separation of kids from their families. But there is one thing that no one can dispute: something changed in April. And it wasn’t the discovery of some new legal scroll that suddenly said the law should be interpreted in a different way. Instead it was a departure from the practice of prior administrations and a new surge in the separation of children from their families. As individuals and groups across the country have spoken up to recognize, this practice violates the fundamental humanitarian principles that define us as a people. It needs to end. And if the administration will not end this on its own, Congress needs to do so.But there are broader aspects of child protection that are also important, and it’s imperative that we keep these in view. In fact, there’s a risk the current debate could lead us to focus quite rightly on the horrors of current child separation practices only to miss a broader legislative initiative to roll back the broader legal protections that children need and deserve.

    The bill would allow children to be held for longer periods of time in more punitive conditions. It would end vital protections for unaccompanied children created by the bipartisan Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 – signed by a Republican president. It would allow children to be deported more quickly, without fair access to due process, leaving them more vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation, grave harm and even death. It would make it harder for asylum seekers to support their claim of persecution and would prohibit any government funding for counsel for children.

    Based on a decade’s experience, we know this will make it harder for immigration judges to make informed decisions on who should be protected and remain in the United States. And these proposals will do nothing to address the drug-fueled violence and dangers that are leading kids to leave villages in three Central American countries and all too often literally flee for their lives.

  • Reducing legal immigration. Microsoft has long held the position that legal immigration makes our country a stronger and better place. While we applaud the long-overdue increase in employment-based green cards, we don’t share the view that this must come at the price of reducing family categories. We do not believe the needs of one immigration category must come at the expense of another. Moreover, we should not be reducing overall legal immigration when our economy benefits from the contributions and innovation of immigrants.

It’s more important than ever to us that Congress finally address these urgent issues.  Our colleagues in the green card backlog have waited far too long for action, and they and their families are paying the price. Our DACA colleagues face growing uncertainty as lawsuits threaten the continuing program. No one wants solutions more than we do. But this urgency should not prevent Congress from addressing the complete range of immigration issues in a fair and humane manner.

We recognize the tremendously difficult work that has already been done, but there is more work still to do. We urge Congress to keep working and enact constructive bipartisan immigration solutions as soon as possible.

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