In Any Immigration Debate, America Should Focus On Its Most Skilled Workers


In Washington, the tendency seems to be that if an issue is considered too poisonous, it is consigned to the scrap heap of history. We have seen this with the issue of immigration reform. Under President George W. Bush, comprehensive immigration reform was attempted in 2006, but despite the House and Senate passing separate legislation, the two bills were unable to be reconciled in conference. During the election of 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama promised that he would pass immigration reform in his first term, although that proved to be a hollow promise. 

The focal point in all of these debates has been the status of low-skilled immigrants from countries in Central and South America. A reform that needs to be addressed, but is lost in the process, is the status of high-skilled workers who graduate from colleges and universities in the United States, mainly in STEM (Scientific, Technical, Engineering and Management) specialties that are becoming scarcer in the U.S., and then are forced to return home, unable to acquire the necessary visas to stay in the country. Those visas are known as H-1 visas and the benefits to our society and our economy from increasing their numbers are enormous.

Because these workers tend to have advanced degrees, they are more likely than low-skilled immigrants to obtain high-salaried jobs. This means that they tend to pay more in taxes than they receive in public benefits. In 2009, the average foreign-born adult with an advanced degree paid over $22,500 in federal, state, and Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA, or Social Security and Medicare) taxes, while their families received benefits one-tenth that size through government transfer programs like cash welfare, unemployment benefits, and Medicaid. 

High-skilled foreign workers also boost the U.S. economy by expanding production capability, increasing output per capita, and attracting foreign capital investments. The data comparing employment among the 50 states and the District of Columbia show that from 2000 to 2007, adding an additional 100 foreign-born workers in STEM fields with advanced degrees from U.S. universities creates an additional 262 jobs among U.S. citizens. Skilled immigrants are  also 30% more likely to start a business than those who are native-born, which is the main driver of economic growth.

Researchers from Duke University examined new STEM-related companies founded in the decade between 1995 and 2005 and found that one-quarter had at least one immigrant founder. Skilled immigrants have historically been successful starting businesses, from Andrew Carnegie and Levi Strauss to more recent examples like Jerry Yang at Yahoo or Sergei Brin at Google.

The loss of highly-skilled workers is helping to narrow the entrepreneurship and knowledge gap between the United States and developing nations like India and China. Every year, at least 50,000 workers with advanced degrees are sent out of the U.S., although they have already passed security tests and become part of the productive fabric of the U.S. economy. In 2009, only 270,000 H-1 visas were issues, and decrease from 301,000 in 2000. 

Skilled immigrants are important for keeping America’s competitive edge. Even as policymakers cannot agree on how to handle large scale immigration of low-skilled workers, it is important that legislation be undertaken to increase the flow of high-skilled workers into vital areas of innovation and growth, including computer programing, biotechnology and other high-tech fields. It makes no sense to allow immigrants to attend American universities, invest in training and teaching them and then force them to leave the country. If a student earns an advanced degree in a STEM field, they should be granted a long-term visa of five years or more to allow them to establish a job with a company and work on their field. If after that time the immigrant is still gainfully employed by a company that is willing to keep them in the company, they should be awarded a green card.

Innovation is what drives this country. Growth in other developing nations like China and India present an economic challenge that we haven’t seen in our history. To make our economy strong again and create jobs, we will have to rely not just on the strength of our citizens, but also those who strive to join our society. We must remain as welcoming and open to immigration as we have been throughout our history, or else the innovation gap that has made us the greatest economic and technological power in human history will disappear.

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