Immigration to the United States
Brains and Borders
From The Economist print edition May 4th 2006
America is damaging itself by making it too difficult for talented people to enter the country
THE dominant images in America's immigration debate are now well established: illegal immigrants marching in the streets of Los Angeles or Chicago; angry congressmen demanding that the United States regain control of its borders. It is to be hoped that America will find a fair way to legalise the status of the masses who have risked so much to get there (see article). But the understandable focus on poor migrants has obscured the fate of richer “knowledge workers”. Computer programmers may seem less deserving of pity, but how America treats these people could be even more important to its economy than its attitude to illegal immigrants.
America's high-tech industries have been powered to a remarkable degree by people born outside the country. According to one calculation, 3,000 of the technology firms created in Silicon Valley since the 1980s—more than 30% of the total—were founded by entrepreneurs with Indian or Chinese roots. The science and engineering departments of America's leading universities have drawn the brightest graduate students from around the world. A great many have stayed and created wealth for themselves and the country they chose to settle in.
But fears about national security and concerns about economic insecurity mean that America is in danger of cutting off this vital flow of talent. In 2001 it authorised 200,000 H-1B visas for highly skilled workers. By 2004 that figure had shrunk to only 65,000. At the American consulate in Chennai in India, the wait just to get a visa interview is more than 160 days. In a recent letter to Congress, Bill Gates warned that the lack of visas and “green cards” for skilled workers was threatening American competitiveness “as other countries benefit from the international talent that US employers cannot hire or retain.” What he did not add is that big American employers can escape the long wait for visas. After all, Microsoft has four big research centres and only one of them is in the United States—the others are in Bangalore, Beijing and Cambridge, England.
The situation is so clearly perilous to the American economy that Congress seems likely to do something about it, if and when it finally passes an immigration bill. But the likeliest remedy—increasing the number of visas and green cards for skilled workers—does not go far enough. Ultimately, the United States should move towards a regime in which any person offered a legitimate job by an American employer is allowed to take it up. Even if fears about competition from low-wage labour make that politically impossible, there is still a strong case for accepting skilled immigrants with offers of work.
The brain game
Other parts of the world are already acting. The Australians, Canadians and Swiss have been successful in attracting foreign talent (see chart), by adopting a points-based immigration system which favours the highly skilled. The 25 countries of the European Union have been less successful, but some are trying to catch up. The need to lure in skilled East Europeans helped persuade four more EU members this week to embrace the free movement of labour. Even in sluggish France there is a controversial plan for a selective system.
To cast the debate in terms of threats and competition is partly to miss the point. America's top universities and high-tech industries are a magnet for the world's talent—and the whole world has benefited from the results. It is in everyone's interests that America gets its immigration policy right.
Sunday, May 14, 2006
While it is true that the highly-skilled worker aspect of the immigration debate affects far fewer people, it is an important consideration of the future of our country. After all, historically, in times of crisis, the US has gotten ahead not only by the hard work and ingenuity of our native citizenry, but also by swiping from our enemies as many really talented folks as we possibly could. This approach helped us immensely against both Germany and Russia. We must take care that we don't, in our efforts to protect ourselves, deprive our country of the valuable resources these would-be citizens represent. This week The Economist published an opinion piece about this issue in their Leader section. I've copied it for your reading pleasure.