Making Our Economy Stronger: The Need for High-Skilled Immigration Reform

It is one of the great American stories, repeated countless times over decades.  An immigrant to the US, sitting in a lab or a company or even at home, working to start a company that ends up becoming a great American success story.

Some of our greatest companies began exactly this way.  And immigrants today have great ideas that can change the world. The question is whether they will develop them in the United States or somewhere else. Our immigration system should be designed to encourage talented people to study in the United States and start companies here. But today, foreign students studying science and engineering at America’s top universities are actually discouraged from using the skills they learn to create American jobs and make our economy more competitive. The end result is that we end up training innovators and entrepreneurs for other countries. That makes no sense. Instead of showing these future entrepreneurs and scientists the door, we should be stapling a green card to their diplomas and providing Startup Visas to those with the best ideas.

Earlier this week, Senator Schumer hosted a Senate Subcommittee hearing on the “Economic Imperative for Enacting Immigration Reform”.  A consistent theme among the hearing panelists, which included leaders from Microsoft and Nasdaq, was that reforming our high skill immigration policy is critical to creating American jobs and spurring economic growth.

In a global marketplace, it is an economic imperative to train, attract, and keep talented people here. When immigrants start companies and file patents they create American jobs and ensure that the industries of the 21st century take root here in the United States.

Immigrant entrepreneurs started 25% of engineering and technology companies between 1995 and 2005, including some of the economy’s biggest names.  And immigrants are inventors.  According to a Duke University study, the share of U.S. patent applications filed by immigrants rose from 7.3% to 24.2% from 1998 to 2006. Nearly a quarter of our scientists and almost half of our engineers are immigrants.

America simply cannot afford to forgo the contributions of the world’s best and the brightest to our economy. To do so would not only be contrary to our values, but also hamper our economic competitiveness. To win the future, we must ensure that highly-skilled immigrants who want to start a business or work in research laboratories do so here, creating American jobs and generating value for our economy. There is bipartisan consensus to enact comprehensive immigration reform; in an op-ed earlier this month, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who served under President George W. Bush, wrote, “If we don't want to find ourselves playing catch-up in the global competition for the cutting-edge, high-growth industries of tomorrow, we need to do something now.” For generations, the world’s most talented and ambitious entrepreneurs, scientists, and engineers have set their sights on our shores to study, launch start-ups, and create jobs. Let’s keep it that way and allow these high skilled immigrants to pursue the American Dream and make our economy stronger.

Austan Goolsbee is Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers

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