Immigration Reform: The Economic Argument

Last week, in the midst of the turmoil related to the nation's debt ceiling, I testified at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security, chaired by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), focusing on the economic imperative for enacting immigration reform. The thrust of the hearing was to explore the economic benefits of immigration reform, with provisions to make it easier for foreign nationals to work in selected sectors of the U.S. workforce.

What? Won't those foreign workers displace equally qualified Americans? How can more immigration be good for America's economy? The answer, simply put, is that foreign workers make a substantial contribution to our country, particularly in the growing high-tech areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM disciplines.

The hearing was a lively interchange among individuals of varying backgrounds and experiences. I was joined on the panel by

  • Robert Greifeld, CEO and president of NASDAQ OMX

  • Bradley Smith, general counsel of Microsoft
  • Puneet Arora, M.D., clinical research medical director of Amgen, who has waited 15 years, so far, for a green card to allow him to live and work in the U.S permanently.
  • Ronil Hira, professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who has focused much of his academic work on high-skill immigration policy, the American workforce and the U.S. economy.
  • I had the privilege of testifying on behalf of the Association of American Universities, a 110-year-old consortium of over 60 research-intensive universities.

    As in any such hearing, there were substantial differences of opinion:

    • Mr. Greifeld indicated that NASDAQ companies often have trouble finding sufficient numbers of American workers with the skills and experience to fill vacancies.

  • Mr. Smith concurred, stating that in May of this year, Microsoft had over 4,000 unfilled jobs.
  • I pointed to data gathered by the Partnership for a New American Economy -- a national bipartisan group of over 300 mayors and business leaders created by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- that confirms staggering projected shortages of workers in fields like industrial engineering and math as well as reminding us of the many hugely successful companies started by immigrants.
  • Professor Hira disagreed, pointing to high current unemployment rates among American high-tech workers. He suggested that one motivation for easing restrictions on immigration was to entice lower-paid workers from abroad to take jobs that would cost employers more if filled by Americans.
  • This apparent contradiction highlights the mismatch between the skills of many American workers and those needed by some of America's most tech-intensive firms. I believe that, as we sort through these differences of opinion and perspective and work to improve the immigration system, we must simultaneously attend to the inadequate and leaky pipeline of STEM students in our K-20 educational system. American students' lack of interest in and qualifications for high-tech careers is a problem in its own right that needs urgent attention. But it cannot be fixed overnight. Meanwhile (as I noted in a previous post), our nation's growth in this innovation economy will depend in no small measure on agile access to the most talented foreign students and scientists -- access that, in turn, depends on a well-functioning immigration system.

    All witnesses agreed, and the senators concurred, that our current system is not working well. Professor Hira pointed to major problems in the "guest worker" programs: those involving the H-1B and other visas. Dr. Arora gave moving testimony to the demeaning delays and bureaucratic hurdles. Mr. Smith told of Microsoft opening a research center in British Columbia to overcome barriers of the U.S. system in nearby Washington State. And I pointed to the roughly 50 percent of our current graduate students in high-tech disciplines who are foreign nationals. Based on what I have learned as a member of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board (a group of some 20 university presidents/chancellors who meet regularly with senior officials of the FBI and other agencies), I also acknowledged the infrequent but potentially very serious national security challenges posed by the presence of foreign nationals in the laboratories of U.S. research institutions.

    These sobering statistics and observations led the witnesses on the panel to conclude that only broad immigration reform would allow our country to maintain and even enhance national security while increasing the supply of skilled workers and entrepreneurs from around the world to populate our high-tech companies, large and small. Without the contributions of highly educated and skilled immigrants, the U.S. will lose ground in critical and robust high-tech areas such as the life sciences, nanotechnology, and sustainable energy systems.
    Can our currently gridlocked political environment produce the bipartisan cooperation needed to design and enact broad immigration reform? Hard to imagine. But here are three things that we could urge our elected leaders to tackle:

    1. Create a streamlined green card process for international students who graduate with STEM degrees from U.S. institutions, especially advanced degrees.

  • Reduce the backlog of skilled immigrants waiting to become permanent residents by increasing the number of employment-based visas and lifting the per-country caps on green cards.
  • Pass the DREAM Act, giving undocumented children who are in the U.S. through no fault of their own the chance for citizenship through hard work in college or the military.
  • Here's hoping that Senator Schumer's hearing will help Congress to focus on this imperative of fairness and economic development. Here's hoping.