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Training But Not Retaining Global Talent

August 25, 2012

This week’s New Yorker has an article by financial columnist James Surowiecki on the issue of higher education, high-skilled immigration, and the U.S. economy. Although the U.S. remains the world’s most popular destination for higher education, he points out that U.S. immigration policy runs counter to our national economic interest.

But there’s also a missed opportunity for the U.S.: many of these foreign  students would prefer to stay and put their skills to work here after they  graduate, but they can’t get work visas. What’s more, studies estimate that  hundreds of thousands of highly skilled immigrants already working here find  themselves stuck in immigration limbo for years, waiting for visa and green-card  applications to be approved. These are well-educated, motivated workers who want  to play for our side. Yet we’re making it difficult for them to do so.

Since the nineteen-sixties, U.S. immigration policy has been designed to  encourage the immigration of family members rather than of skilled workers. In  1990, the number of employment-based permanent visas was capped at a hundred and  forty thousand a year. Astonishingly, that number hasn’t changed since, even  though the U.S. economy is now sixty-six per cent bigger, and, with the rise of  India and China, the supply of global talent has grown sharply. We also cap the  visa allocation for each country, regardless of size, at seven per cent of the  total number of visas, so only a fraction of the applications from China and  India get approved. (The number of temporary work visas is also capped, at  eighty-five thousand a year.) As of 2006, according to one study, more than half  a million highly skilled immigrants were waiting for permanent visas, and the  backlog in some visa categories was decades long. Other countries, meanwhile,  have positioned themselves to benefit from the talent we’re turning away.  Australia allows in almost as many skilled workers annually as the U.S., despite  having a fraction of the population, and Canada has aggressively courted the  highly skilled, nearly quadrupling the percentage of permanent visas it grants  for employment.

Of course, with unemployment here above eight per cent, too little  immigration may not seem like a bad thing: surely we need more jobs, not more  workers? But this is a shortsighted view. Economies are not static, with a  limited set of resources to go around. As the work of the economist Paul Romer  has shown, economies grow faster when there is more innovation, and having more  smart people in the workforce is a key driver of innovation. And the quickest,  cheapest way to get more smart people is to make it easy for them to move here.  What’s more, historically there has been a clear connection between immigration  in the U.S. and entrepreneurship, with immigrants creating companies (and jobs)  at a disproportionate rate. In one famous study, the social scientist AnnaLee  Saxenian showed that Chinese and Indian immigrants alone founded a quarter of  Silicon Valley start-ups between 1980 and 1998, while a 2007 study found that a  quarter of all technology and engineering start-ups between 1995 and 2005 were  founded by immigrants. On a larger scale, more than forty per cent of the  companies in the 2010 Fortune 500 were started by immigrants or their  children.

Immigration is also good for innovation in general. One study found that in  2006 foreign nationals living in the U.S. contributed to almost twenty-six per  cent of U.S. international-patent applications, and last year immigrants  contributed to three-quarters of the patents that came out of the country’s ten  most prolific research universities. The national debate on immigration makes it  seem as if immigrant workers were competing with native-born workers for shares  of a fixed pie. That’s always a questionable assumption, but in the case of  skilled immigrants it’s simply wrong. Their presence makes the pie bigger for  everyone.



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