All too often, the topic of immigration reform is mentioned in the same breath as “social justice,” as though one is merely an extension of the other’s moral imperative. To do so is to exclude a careful consideration of the myriad productive components, and to therefore fundamentally misunderstand immigration as an indelible and invaluable mainstay of the American economy. Indeed, to understand the importance of immigration for the American economic system, one must attempt an understanding of its relationship with the U.S. economic model, the factors that drive and support it, and the misinformation that seeks to misrepresent it.
Few Americans today are unaware of the foundational role immigration has played in accelerating our country’s growth throughout the early settlement and industrial eras. As expanding industrial production spurred a need for increased manual labor in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, immigrants bridged the labor gap and fed the then-nascent notion of an American dream.
In 1997, Congress published a report to analyze the demographic, economic and fiscal consequences of immigration, and found that, overwhelmingly, immigration yielded a net economic gain by increasing the wages of higher-skilled workers and lowering the prices for goods and services produced through their labor.
Today, the landscape has shifted, but the need remains. The dominant economic trends in the U.S. are more reliant on specialized knowledge and advanced skill sets than manual labor, and there, too, immigrants are bridging the gap.
According to the Partnership for a New American Economy, from 1996 to 2011, the rate at which immigrants started new businesses grew by more than 50 percent, and the same rate for native-born Americans declined by 10 percent to the lowest in 30 years. What’s more, those immigrants’ businesses employ 10 percent of Americans working for private companies.
Temporary visas for highly skilled workers, known as H-1Bs, help America’s leading industries access the specialized talent they need to innovate and grow. The rapidly expanding and evolving needs of highly technical professions — vital across most industries — are experiencing a critical STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills shortage. H-1B visas are an essential resource to bridge the gap for jobs like data management and analysis, cloud computing and mobile app development, and they keep operations and innovation moving forward while we address our domestic STEM shortage at the systemic level.
Take Mike Krieger, the Brazilian-born co-founder of Instagram, who studied symbolic systems at Stanford University before creating his famous mobile app. Without an H-1B visa, Krieger could not have remained in the U.S. after college, and he might never have gone on to develop his renowned app.
“It took less time to build Instagram than it did for me to get my work visa,” attests Krieger, who continues to operate Instagram, a 200-employee, $35 billion Silicon Valley company.
Despite their enormous contribution to the U.S. economy, the debate over immigrants is perennially and puzzlingly reduced to the question of deportation. In an effort to discredit them, the leading opponents of these valuable and necessary visa programs — most notable among them Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump — misrepresent and mischaracterize the program as “rife with abuses.” But the need for increased program oversight and enforcement can hardly nullify the important role H-1Bs play in maintaining the operational vitality of our nation’s businesses.
Each year on April 1, the U.S. issues only 65,000 visas, a cap that is reached in less than one day owing to the hundreds of thousands of applications submitted by businesses seeking talented professionals. When that window opens again this week, we will once more turn away thousands of the world’s best and brightest, who will be forced to seek employment from among America’s competitors.
Of these highly skilled and qualified applicants, the majority are graduates of American universities. Nearly 80 percent of full-time U.S. graduate students in electrical engineering are international students, as are more than 70 percent of graduate students in computer science. Our leading businesses continue to cry out for workers with these advanced, technical skill sets, and although we are willing to educate foreigners to attain the skills our businesses need, we are as yet unwilling to do what we must to retain that talent here in the U.S.
Immigration — both permanent and temporary — is a linchpin of U.S. economic progress, American values, and national competitiveness. We must ask our legislators to eschew political and personal dividers to support these vital programs. The sooner we embrace the global talent pool of tomorrow, the sooner we can benefit from its potential.