As the presidential race heats up, so has the debate over U.S. immigration policies. President Obama’s recent executive order to allow undocumented youth facing deportation to seek two-year work permits if they meet criteria such as five years U.S. residency and no criminal record has already sparked controversy among people on both sides of the issue. And more immigration-related debates are sure to dominate the discourse of presidential conventions this summer.
But, according to some of the nation’s top economists, it’s not just the social and political ramifications of the issue that Americans should be concerned about; it’s the fact that immigrants, especially highly skilled ones, are a key driver of economic growth and development in many cities. And as minority populations continue to grow in both small and large metros across the U.S., this trend is becoming even more of a reality.
A new study, conducted by the bipartisan nonprofit Partnership for a New American Economy, shows that 76 percent, or three-fourths, of patents produced at the nation’s top research universities had at least one foreign-born inventor. According to the study, many of these innovators are pioneering research in the country’s top science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, including:
•Semiconductor device manufacturing: 87 percent
•Information technology: 84 percent
•Pulse or digital communications: 83 percent
•Pharmaceutical drugs: 79 percent
•Optics: 77 percent
At least half (55 percent) of these patents were awarded to foreign-born students, postdoctoral fellows or staff researchers — a group likely to face visa hurdles upon graduation. Under the current system, these students are allowed to stay in the U.S. for 12 to 29 months after graduation, as long as they find job or internship in their field. More permanent visas, or green cards, can be difficult and expensive to obtain, depending on country quotas and other bureaucratic factors.
These citizenship hurdles are driving many foreign-born students and expatriates back to their native countries— and nations like China and others have begun aggressively courting them, eager to bring them and their talent back home. One of the most marketable commodities the U.S. has globally is its appeal to young immigrants, but as a nation we often fail to take advantage of that, economists say. As The Rise of the Creative Class author Richard Florida points out in a recent post on the Atlantic Cities blog:
While America’s pundits and politicians obsess over the alleged social costs of illegal immigration, they should be worried that we may not always be the premier destination for legal immigrants, who bring the skills, energy and ambition that provide so much of the punch for the twin engines of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Despite highly publicized immigration debates over the past decade, the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. to work is actually declining — and has been for the past 20 years. While some countries, especially those with aging populations and an exodus of talented youth, have made major accommodations for skilled or entrepreneurial immigrants, the U.S. has been hesitant to do so.
Even tough new laws intended to combat illegal immigration in Alabama and Arizona have hampered recruitment of foreign companies and foreign-born workers in those states and have tarnished their economic image globally.
An Untapped Resource
Immigrant-friendly nations have higher levels of economic growth and vibrancy, Florida says. Half of all recent Silicon Valley start-ups, for example, count a foreign-born American as a member of their founding team, according to recent studies. And one-fifth of all American businesses are owned by immigrants, up from 12 percent two decades ago.
Rather than fighting against immigration, we need to embrace it, according to economist Joel Kotkin, while at the same time figuring out how to better attract, retain and even naturalize immigrants who “contribute to the national well-being and economic competitiveness.” As he notes in a recent post on his NewGeography blog:
We need to target immigrants most likely to help our advanced industries, start businesses and families, and whose descendants will provide critical demographic vibrancy.
What’s your view on this issue? How can the U.S. attract more highly skilled immigrants and make the citizenship process easier for them?