Thursday, April 9, 2009

America's Love-Hate Affair With Educated Foreigners: Stop Hating, For the Love of God (Pt. 1 of 3)

NEW YORK, New York -- President Barack Obama is planning to push a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would include legalizing the status of the estimated 12 to 20 million illegal aliens in the United States, the New York Times reported today.

That news came amid both a period of media attention toward illegal immigration and a number of immigration-related political decisions. While the political events have unfortunately tended to take aim at highly educated would-be legal immigrants, it is clear that the role of illegal migrants in the United States is becoming increasingly relevant on the back of concern about the economy and jobs.

The illegal migration issue heats up again

The Times’ report may be the most significant development since the illegal immigration began bubbling up in recent weeks, but it is already not the most recent. Following this news, the Wall Street Journal reported this evening that Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has lately softened his stance on illegal immigration.

The Walter Duranty Report has previously advocated the need for comprehensive immigration reform and increased numbers of legal immigrants. However, I find the Obama plan, as described in the New York Times, to be a potential disaster for including what appears to be a blanket amnesty for illegal aliens – something that I find morally debatable but unacceptable from the point of view of upholding the rule of law, giving all would-be immigrants an equal playing field, justifying the considerable effort and blood expended by the country’s 1 million annual legal immigrants, and the way it may threaten any lasting reform.

Over the next few days, I'd like to put together a few pieces representing my thoughts on this subject at the moment. Those pieces will cover three areas: Why Immigration Reform Is Necessary; Why a Blanket Amnesty for Illegal Aliens Is Wrong; and What to Do.


America’s immigration system is broken. We have previously said that fixing it is the single most important thing the country will need to do to prosper in the long term, and that continues to hold true. Without going into the moral or historical arguments in favor of immigration, we'll focus on three economic arguments that present a case for reforming a system that keeps out skilled immigrants:

1. Today's antiquated, restrictive system cannot accommodate the numbers of skilled immigrants who want to enter the United States, especially in relation to unskilled immigrants;

2. Skilled would-be immigrants not allowed into the United States are wooed by other nations to improve their economic competitiveness; and

3. Our biggest pool of skilled immigrants (foreign students) is increasingly alienated.

Let's look at the system first. It's safe to say that under our current system gaining a visa or green card to work in, live in or immigrate to the United States is incredibly difficult and confusing for people in most countries. Most visas and green cards, for instance, are given out via a random lottery that grants randomly selected people the right to enter the US. Would-be immigrants-cum-lotto winners from various countries, however, have different numbers of green cards and visas they can bid for. Until this past year, for instance, Russians were ineligible for green cards entirely.

Not only is this system totally random (literally) and based on opaque nation-based quotas, but even the types of visas that exist is labyrinthine and confusing: The best-known visa program is the green card, but while nearly a quarter of all US naturalized citizens in 2008 were Mexicans, for example, zero qualified for a green card.

Meanwhile, the status quo allows a mere 65,000 work visas under the H1-B program that brings in high-skilled immigrants. Last year, however, over 1,000,000 people became naturalized citizens. So at best 6.5% of people receiving citizenship are skilled workers -- not a good sign for a country that wants to compete with the rest of the world in a high-tech, globalized 21st century.

This, however, is not due to a lack of skilled workers who want to enter the United States. As the Economist reported last year, hundreds of thousands of doctors, computer programmers, engineers, lawyers and businessmen apply for H1-Bs each year.

So what happens to the many, many skilled immigrants who aren't among that 65,000? While in years past, those people would apply year after year hoping to one day get into America, other rich-world countries have caught on to the gains they can make while the US shooes away the world's best and brightest.

Canada, New Zealand and Australia now grant visas and residency based on "points" systems that allot points for education and skills. The UK allows in anyone who has graduated from the world's top business schools. For its part, America spins the PowerLotto wheel to let in 65,000 out of hundreds of thousands of educated would-be immigrants.

What do we have to show for this? Well, 25% of Silicon Valley companies were started by Indian or Chinese immigrants, and 40% of US PhDs are annually earned by foreigners. Sending that large number of Indian and Chinese PhDs home means the Silicon Valleys of tomorrow may be quite foreign-sounding places.

And not only do our immigration policies improve the competitiveness of other countries, but they objectively hurt the US as well. The Labor Department is projecting 2 million unfillable vacancies in US tech positions by 2014 because we send home all of the engineering graduates of US universities. Meanwhile, tech giants like Microsoft are rightly basing ever more of their operations in Canada, where immigrants are more welcome.

Perhaps not surprisingly the Economist also recently reported that new studies show American policies that restrict skilled immigrants are hurting our ability to innovate and create new, competitive companies. Another study released last month showed that the Chinese and Indian PhDs who once applied to remain in the US now simply go home to start their companies, given the economic growth in their home countries and the small chance of being allowed to stay in the US. Whereas 50,000 immigrants from those countries returned home in the last 20 years, the next five years are projected to see 100,000 Indians and Chinese leave the US.

Realizing the deleterious effects of US immigration policy, American technology executives, business leaders and academics have long called for dramatically increasing the cap on H1-B visas, or eliminating it entirely.

Instead, Congress seems eager to do just the opposite. The Employ American Workers Act (EAWA), part of the stimulus, bans banks that receive TARP money from hiring foreign workers, and Bank of America has already withdrawn offers to foreigners. Meanwhile, Indian media are reporting that Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa and a co-author of the EAWA) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) are trying to prevent foreign IT professionals from gaining H1-B visas.

These men want you to be poorer and dumber: Grassley (left) and Durbin

Again, business leaders (who argue we need the world's best to fix our broken finance system and corporations) and academics (realizing that fewer job opportunities for foreigners means fewer foreign students means less revenue for US universities) are aghast that Congress is again taking aim at its own foot. But even the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation is now worried, demanding a large increase in the number of H1-Bs because it reasons that having more smart people in the US is -- surprise! -- good for the economy. Unfortunately, Dick Durbin is unlikely to be influenced by that particular think tank, which may have had better luck gaining Washington's ear in the Bush days.

Finally, the largest source of high-skilled immigrants -- international students at US universities -- is increasingly fixing its sights on other destinations for study because of difficulties in obtaining a visa to stay in the United States, as the New York Times reported last month.

Who needs scientists?

That's only logical, given that the entire academic continuum of a foreign student's life in the US is under close scrutiny by the government. Yep, foreign students are monitored at all times under the SEVIS system that, as of January 2009, turns university employees into agents able to access student files and write about anything suspicious they do.

Once those foreign students who make it past SEVIS graduate, there's another juncture at which they may choose to go home. Any American who went to college probably knows a number of smart international kids who left the US after graduation either because they couldn't find a job "directly related" to their major and were not given a visa to stay, or because they didn't want to put up with the bureaucracy and uncertainty of trying to stay.

A Canadian acquaintance's story is indicative of the absurdity of demanding that foreign workers be employed in fields "directly related" to one's major. The acquaintance works at a charity that helps young Bronx residents learn computer and other job-related skills. She went last winter to the Caribbean for vacation and to apply for a new visa (an annual endeavor). She was denied a visa, however, because her degree (a Bachelor's and Master's in English from Cambridge University) did not "qualify" her for her job, which the consulate staff told her was in "social work." Since she still had a month left on her current visa, she flew back to the US planning to get some advice from her lawyer and reapply in a few weeks.

When transferring in Houston, however, she was stopped, handcuffed, and held in a Texas detention center for a night without being allowed to make a phone call or given a blanket to keep warm in her cold cell. She was then put on a plane to Toronto, where she had no friends, family or place to stay. Her crime? Because she had a month on her visa, she was an "immigration risk." Intervention from her employer and New York politicians helped her to renew her visa and re-enter the US.

This is how we treat the world's most educated and ambitious people. The people who can help America remake its banking sector, its energy economy, its healthcare networks, and its education system -- all while ensuring that our technology, software and entertainment companies stay at the top of the pack -- are told not to apply, and at risk of being handcuffed if they do.

Do we need foreign workers to fix the economy? Who knows. What's clear is that America has always been a magnet for the world's top scientists, from Joseph Priestly to Albert Einstein. Lesser scientists than they are capable of building tomorrow's most agile companies, creating jobs and expanding the economy. Immigration reform is needed to make sure the brains that keep an economy and a society going can find their way here. America built itself on attracting the world's most ambitious, hardworking and intelligent people. Unfortunately, they can no longer come here legally without great difficulties. Reform is needed because now is no time to neglect that tradition of attracting -- and welcoming -- the world's best and brightest.

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