Immigration photo

The Quad-Cities Manufacturing Laboratory, located at Rock Island Arsenal.

There may be no more divisive issue in America than immigration. But beyond the media glare and the 2020 presidential campaign, there is hope that the two political parties can make progress on this issue.

Witness the legislation introduced earlier this year by Sens. Kamala Harris and Mike Lee.

Lee, a conservative Republican from Utah, and Harris, a California Democrat, introduced a bill that would remove per-country caps on employment-based visas. The measure also would lift from 7 percent to 15 percent the per-country caps on family based visas, though it would not raise the overall level. (Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is a co-sponsor of this legislation.)

Currently, no more than 7 percent of either type of visa can come from any individual country.

This has created a huge backlog in places like India.

The legislation’s authors say lifting and eliminating the caps would go a long way toward clearing that backlog. Business interests, meanwhile, believe it would help with the nation’s skilled-worker shortage.

The week before last, the president of the Ames Chamber of Commerce wrote in the Des Moines Register that a "starling number" of Iowa State University graduates won’t be able to work in this state — not because they can’t find jobs, but because they were born in a foreign country.

It's no secret Iowa, as well as the Quad-Cities, has trouble retaining young people.

In a place like Ames, where the jobless rate is one of the lowest in the country at less than 1.5 percent, filling the workforce pipeline is a huge issue. And while the jobless rate is higher in the Quad-Cities, a lot of  employers have  told us they, too, are experiencing difficulty finding the right talent.

There is opposition to lifting the caps, out of concern that some countries will dominate the flow of visas. However, a bi-partisan group of 33 senators appears to believe the proposal has enough worth to sign on as co-sponsors.

This isn’t the only under-the-radar immigration proposal out there. Recently, the Economic Innovation Group, a public-policy organization, published a report touting what it called "Heartland Visas."

The voluntary program would be aimed at Rust Belt communities that have seen their populations stagnate, especially those who are of prime working age.

We know this problem all too well here in the Quad-Cities, where we grow very little in some years, if at all.

And it's not just slow or non-existent growth in so-called Rust Belt communities. There also tends to be an exodus of highly-skilled and educated people who move to bigger cities, leaving lower-skilled workers behind.

Rural communities in Iowa and Illinois have it far worse than their urban cousins, but the challenges of a dwindling, skilled workforce are a challenge here, too.

Fresh news of that sad fact was delivered by new Census estimates last week. The data showed minimal growth in Scott County and continued population decline in Rock Island County.

More to the point of this subject, the population of prime working-age adults (ages 25 to 54) is falling in the Quad-Cities, according to the new data. In Scott County, the prime working-age population fell from 67,347 in 2010 to 66,682 last year.

In Rock Island County, the numbers are even more startling. In 2010, there were 57,217 people of prime working age; last year, that had fallen to 51,664.

Think about that. In just eight years, the county lost nearly 6,000 people in the prime of their working life. Imagine what that does to companies looking to expand.

Mind you, these losses come in the midst of an economic recovery, too.

This area, like much of the Midwest, needs innovation to grow.

Boosting the number of Iowans with higher levels of education and investing in advanced job training are good steps. However, immigration must be considered a vital part of fixing this problem, too. And it's not just needed to fill existing workforce gaps. As the Economic Innovation Group report points out, skilled immigrants are also highly entrepreneurial and could create new opportunities.

Policies that leverage much-coveted visas to direct a skilled workforce to areas of the United States that are in need, along with legislation like that offered by Lee and Harris, won’t resolve all of our immigration problems. Far from it. But at a time when much of our national conversation about this topic is ugly and angry, there are solutions out there.

Our leaders just need to put politics aside and take advantage of them.

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