Immigration – Simply Ensuring America’s competitiveness

In higher education and as a nation, we value diversity and inclusivity. A diversity that in great part stems from the immigrant roots of our nation. Whether we immigrated here escaping British or French oppression in the early 1600’s or arrived as unwilling forced labor in the 1700’s. or escaped the Irish potato famine or Southern Italian economic oppression in the 1800’s, or the domination of the Ottoman empire or Nazi oppression in the early part of the 1900’s, or arrived as refugees of the wars in Surinam and Vietnam, or fled the absence of economic opportunity in India, or ideological repression in China in more recent years ― we are unequivocally and irrevocably a nation of immigrants.

However in Washington, D.C. today (and across the country as a whole) immigration ― its benefits, its conditions, and its limits ― is on the forefront of policy debates. Maybe even on on trial. But before we attempt to respond we must recognize that there is a true concern in many parts of our nation today regarding the threat, real or exaggerated, of terrorism, crime, social costs, and jobs lost as a result of foreign nationals on US soil (and abroad). Concerns that are driving a vitriolic polemic.

However, while recognizing that this topic can generate significant emotions (and that I myself am an immigrant) it is very critical for the sake of our nation’s competitivenes ― if not in recognition of its roots and principles ― that we don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

In 2011 the National Foundation for American Policy released a report on scientific achievement in education in America. The results? America’s top high school science and math students have something in common beyond their academic success. Most of them have parents who immigrated to this country. According to the Foundation’s report, 70 percent of the finalists in that year’s highly competitive Intel Science Talent Search competition were the children of immigrants. Of the 40 finalists, 16 were children of Chinese immigrants and 10 were children of Indian immigrants.

In that same year, at the championship finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Sukanya Roy, a 14-year old girl whose parents had immigrated from India, took home the trophy after 20 grueling rounds, correctly spelling ‘cymotrichous’ to seal her victory. Seven of that year’s 13 finalists were Indian-Americans. And in 2012? The winner was Snigdha Nandipati from San Diego, California. Her winning word was guetapens. She was the fifth consecutive Indian American, and the tenth since 1999, to win. In second place? Stuti Mishra. In third? Arvind Mahankali.

To put this in perspective – Chinese comprise only one percent and Indians less than one percent of the American population. But when it comes to American science (and even spelling) they are a dominant force.

A 2010 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas noted that immigrants help fuel the U.S. economy, representing about one in every six workers. In fact, foreign-born workers accounted for almost half of the labor force growth over the past 15 years. And the future of U.S. prosperity depends on having a skilled workforce.

But while immigrants account for 53 percent of blue-collar jobs in the US (the ‘brawn’ of the report), they also account for a disproportionate share of STEM and healthcare workers (Figure 1). And many immigrant groups are more highly educated than the average citizen, strengthening the brain-power of our nation. Recent census data indicated that 80 percent of workers in the U.S. who arrived from India have at least a bachelor’s degree, and more than 50 percent of those from Taiwan, Japan, Iran, the former U.S.S.R. and South Korea had the same. In contrast, only about 30 percent of the overall US population has obtained a bachelor’s degree.

Figure 1

But it’s not just Bachelor degrees. A 2010 report from the National Science Foundation noted that the proportion of foreign nationals among individuals who earned a research doctorate in science, engineering, or health in the US has followed a general upward trend since 1960 (Figure 2).

U.S. research doctorates awarded in science, engineering, or health, by citizenship: 1960-2010

Figure 2

And so it should not surprise us that a significant proportion of start-up companies begun in the U.S. are founded by immigrants. A 2008 report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation noted that in a quarter of the U.S. science and technology companies founded from 1995 to 2005 (Figure 3) the chief executive or lead technologist was foreign-born. In 2005, these companies generated $52 billion in revenue and employed 450,000 workers. Interestingly, the vast majority of these company founders didn’t come to the US as entrepreneurs—52 percent came to study, 40 percent came to work, and 5.5 percent came for family reasons. But they moved fast, typically starting their companies just 13.25 years after arriving in this country.

Figure 3

And so immigration… and the arrival of new ideas, thoughts and inventiveness… continues (as it always has) to help ensure that our country remains diverse, competitive and successful. Notwithstanding the recent debate regarding the burden of illegal immigration, we should strive to ensure that we continue to attract… and retain… the best and the brightest of the world.

We should always remember that we are in essence a nation of immigrants. For our diversity and inclusivity is indispensable to our competitiveness and the good of our nation.

(Editor’s note: this posting has been modified from an earlier version published by the author on his ‘Sculpting in Clay’ blog site at Georgia Regents University)

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