Now going on six years, immigration reform has been Washington, D.C.’s most popular political football. It’s no wonder. As an issue, our embarrassingly awful immigration system provides each party with great fodder for their base come election time.
Our endless debates over illegal immigration, fences and the rights of children who arrived here illegally mean nothing gets done.
The debate is always about who we don’t want. What about discussing who we do want? What about a strategy that targets immigrants who will make us stronger, grow our economy and make us better competitors?
Strategic immigration reform means rather than trying to solve the illegal immigration issue and cram as many solutions into one omnibus bill, we should instead approach immigration reform in stages. Let’s first get right what we can all agree is wrong, before the mud starts flying.
What we can agree on is that attracting the world’s best and brightest immigrants has historically been one of the central pillars of America’s economic competitive advantage. Just look at today’s largest, most innovative U.S. companies: eBay, Google, Intel and Yahoo to name just a few, were all started by foreign-born immigrants.
A 2009 study from the Kauffman Foundation found that a quarter of the U.S. science and technology companies founded from 1995 to 2005 had foreign-born chief executive or lead technologist. In 2005, these companies had $52 billion in revenue and employed 450,000 workers.
Yet, as a 2010 Small Business Administration report noted, “a direct impact of 9/11 has been felt in the tightening of U.S. immigration policy,” which “has nevertheless affected entrepreneurship in the United States.” For instance, no more than 7 percent of visas for skilled workers can go to immigrants from any one country.
This might seem “fair,” but it’s also remarkably stupid. We know where the skilled technologists are coming from —China, India and South Korea, to name the most obvious — yet we treat tiny Iceland with its 300,000 inhabitants the same way we do China and India with their talent pool of more than a billion people each. That’s like insisting each U.S. state has a right to its proportional share of U.S. Olympic athletes.
Our economic growth and historic strategy of attracting and keeping the best and brightest is a tad more important than some political compromise of treating every country the same.
Here’s the problem: If the world’s best and brightest can’t come here, they’ll go elsewhere. Indeed, China has a national policy to seduce back Chinese-born-and-U.S.-educated American citizens and visa holders. Faced with deciding between a good job and large salary, which is what the Chinese are offering, or going to the back of the U.S. visa line after graduation, which would you choose? Other nations, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, also offer skilled immigrant workers strong incentives to come to their shores.
Meanwhile, the United States lumbers along, happily using taxpayer money to train foreign-born students at our world-class universities. They get their degrees and then we send them packing — so they can become our competitors. It makes no sense.
If we want to approach immigration reform strategically, then the place to start is with our inane visa policies restricting the number of skilled workers. Right now in the House of Representatives, two bills would do just that.
The first is Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s (D-Calif.) Immigration Driving Entrepreneurship in America Act, which would allow U.S. companies to attract and retain immigrants with degrees in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. The bill would also create a new green card for foreign-born entrepreneurs who begin a startup and create jobs. In other words, Lofgren’s bill would provide skilled immigrants with both the means and the incentives to build their lives and their dreams in America.
The other bill is from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and would reform the Immigration and Nationality Act to eliminate the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program and reallocate those visas (about 55,000 a year) to immigrants with advanced degrees. Some might argue that it’s only fair to set aside visas for countries with low rates of U.S. immigration. But we have to ask ourselves what is a higher national priority: Meeting quotas or rebuilding America’s economic engine?
Both bills recognize the value of strategic immigration. They identify a specific problem — America’s mindless visa policies — and provide sensible solutions. Best of all, one comes from a Democrat, the other from a Republican. It turns out that Congress can work together, if we can just set aside the Washington twitch to fix everything in one bill.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association and author of “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.”