Immigrant Talent Critical To U.S. Dominance, Says Economist

Peter Orazem is an economist and professor at Iowa State University, where he’s taught for 34 years. Orazem’s career has given him insight into how much the United States relies on both high- and low-skilled immigrants to move our economy forward. “We have a country that’s capital rich and labor poor,” he says. “We don’t have enough skills for the types of things we can do productively, so we can either outsource production to other countries to access those skills, or we can attract talent and house those skills here in the United States.”

We don’t have enough skills for the types of things we can do productively, so we can either outsource production to other countries to access those skills, or we can attract talent and house those skills here in the United States.

Orazem stresses that in order for the United States to maintain a technological and intellectual competitive advantage, we have to do a better job of attracting students and academics to the country. “Look at the share of our Nobel Laureates born in other countries,” he says. “It’s not a small fraction. A lot of the talent that goes into our research and development, patenting, innovation — it’s talent we attract from other countries.”

Orazem also says the United States must remember its historical commitment to accept immigrants and refugees from other nations. “The role of the United States as the shining beacon on the hill, willing to accept castoffs and give them a chance — that’s something we should take pride in, rather than approach with fear. There’s always room for one more person.”

Orazem’s own parents came to the United States as refugees from Slovenia following World War II, and both eventually had successful careers in academia. “Turning castaways from other countries into productive citizens has a good moral value to it as well as pure economic value,” he says. For instance, in Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, which is home to his university, immigrants have started more than 620 businesses and hold $630 million in annual spending power, according to New American Economy research.

Orazem would like to see the federal government increase the number of temporary work permits available to agricultural workers. “Otherwise our fruit and vegetable industry is going to have to move out of the U.S. to Mexico,” he warns. He’d also like to see a greater focus on retaining international talent. “Our particular advantage in graduate education and in keeping that talent here is going to be threatened if we don’t expand the program for high-skilled visas,” he says. “Australia and Europe are happy to step up and move into a more competitive spot if we don’t work harder to retain that talent.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…