Give us your tired, your poor … and your PhD scientists

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How’s this for a provocative start of an article: the Tech Guys advocate attracting 100 million new immigrants to the United States in the next 20 years. Why? For three simple reasons: to expand the economy, to remain the world’s strongest country and to be consistent with American values.

America is a land of immigrants. Some would say that’s a trite phrase but it is a powerful phrase that bears repeating. The first immigrants came to what eventually became America about 20,000 years ago. And what a journey they took — it was a long, arduous walk over the Bering land bridge.

Why did these first immigrants come? Researchers have spent careers opining on this topic, but the Tech Guys are simple folk so we’ll tell you why: to search for a better life. People don’t walk thousands of miles because they are bored. They do it because they are motivated to improve their situation and to give their children a better chance than they had. Of course, most American families have only been in the USA for at most a few generations. Rare are the descendants of the original Bering trekkers or the Jamestown colonists.

Despite America’s challenges, is there any other country which has done a better job of integrating and assimilating people from all over the world?  Is there any other society that is so open in discussing troubles, differences, conflicts and history — yet so optimistic in embracing what binds people together? Our friends and colleagues from all over the world are amazed at how candidly Americans acknowledge and confront the challenges of running a country composed of people from countless traditions, religions, languages, ethnicities and countries of origin.

There are as many types of immigrants as there are immigrants — each one is special and unique. America has benefited from us all: low-skilled and high-skilled, rich and poor. Other countries focus on admitting only the rich and the skilled, however the USA has focused on admitting family members, the low-skilled and the economically disadvantaged. We think this has been good for America because it keeps families together, grows communities and produces motivated citizens. Patrick grew up in a house with nine people and one toilet, and can report firsthand that such an environment motivates one to study diligently and work hard.

One never knows where the next Bill Gates, Bill Boeing, or Sergey Brin is going to come from. The next person who creates a world-changing company may be a recent immigrant or someone whose family has been here for centuries. Most likely, it will be a combination of several, as Americans inter-marry among classes more often than people in other countries. Thus it is silly and unproductive to spend too much time trying to label people.

The seed corn of this country is clearly the large number of immigrants searching for a better life. However, our traditional immigration policy is ill-equipped to help the current state of the American economy, which is in desperate need of supercharging. We don’t have the luxury of time and thus the traditional American way of letting in solely the huddled masses isn’t quite enough.

We must open up immigration policy to include the rich and the skilled. We do not advocate cutting back on existing immigration programs for families, low-skilled workers or those seeking asylum. Rather, we propose opening immigration policy to those that have money to invest in the USA, who want to create jobs and start businesses, and those that have special skills and talents. For instance, we advocate stapling a green card to the diploma of every immigrant who earns a PhD in math, science and engineering from an American university.

This is not a new idea as many nations, such as Canada and Singapore, give preferential immigration policies to rich and high-skilled folks so that jobs will be created immediately.

We repeat: we favor immigration of all types. Some of the most successful Americans are recent immigrants who came to this country with no money and few skills. But through motivation and hard work, they become job creators.

We are not naïve — immigrants need to do the same thing Patrick’s grandmother did — learn English quickly and teach English to their children. We are a complex society and we need to be bound together by something in common.  The America of 2010 does not have a common religion nor even a common love of capitalism — we are far too diverse for that. So we must be bound together by the English language. In addition we do not suggest loosening up security requirements; every immigrant should be thoroughly screened for criminal behavior.

Our radical proposal is to add 100 million new immigrants over the next 20 years and encourage high-skilled and wealthy people to move to America. If this country expanded from its current population of 307 million to 400 million people, one would barely notice it — other than the new jobs, innovation and growth.

During the last 40 years the USA population has increased more than 50%, from 203M to 307M.  Yet America today is wealthier, more productive, has lower poverty rates, better health and a far cleaner environment than it did 40 years ago. For readers that are old enough to remember Los Angeles in 1970, you will realize that by comparison, our air today is practically pristine across the whole country. The further you go back in time, the dirtier the air and water was. Economic growth and new technologies have cleaned up the American environment.

If you’ve ever flown across the USA on a clear day and looked out your window, you have seen that most of America is empty expanse with plenty of quality land. We have about 23% of China’s population in an area that is slightly larger. And, more of the USA is habitable because China has a greater percentage of rugged mountains and desert. In addition, we have more coastline than China, more fertile crop land and vastly more fresh water supplies. So to take it to an extreme, the USA could add another 1 billion people and still have it easier than China.

The USA possesses only about 4.5% of the world’s population. China has about 20% and India 17%. America still has the world’s largest economy, but not for long. China is growing much faster, and the weak dollar policy of the Obama administration is contributing to America’s relative wealth decline.

America’s high-growth technology industries have been international for a long time. Increasingly America’s agricultural, manufacturing and service industries are following the same path. The presence of immigrants in these industries helps create jobs in an interesting way — it makes it easier and more likely that foreign-owned multinational companies will create jobs in America.

For instance, as the Wall Street Journal reported on December 6th, 5.6 million Americans have jobs that were created and paid for by these foreign firms as of 2008 (the most recent data available). The even better news is that these companies account for a disproportionately large share of capital investment, R&D and exports. These are good, high-paying jobs — with an average salary of over $73,000.

Some would say that attracting too many immigrants reduces job opportunities for Americans. However history shows that growth in a population is necessary to raise living standards for everyone. Wealthy countries like Singapore and Japan are desperately trying to increase their populations because their birth rates have plummeted and they know their wealth will dissipate if their populations shrink.

In addition, businesses are created and grown by attracting the best and the brightest. In frustration with USA immigration policy, Microsoft opened a large office just over the border in Vancouver, Canada in 2007. So the USA lost out on those high-paying jobs.

Many of the USA’s most promising technology startup companies are founded by and populated by immigrant employees. The USA is not producing enough PhDs in science and engineering. Historically we have been able to attract the best and the brightest from all around the world. However the USA is no longer a shoo-in for attracting these folks. As Asian countries have become wealthier and developed world-class universities and employment opportunities, the smartest young people have begun to shun the USA. Even when they are interested in coming to America, ham-handed American immigration policy often gives them the cold shoulder.

Students from Asia can earn a PhD in the USA, fully paid for by American taxpayers, and then the USA government kicks them out of the country when they get their PhD! This is crazy. Anyone who spends 5-7 years working hard to become a world’s expert en route to obtaining a PhD has shown their commitment to being a productive citizen, and they deserve to have the option to stay in America.

Walking the halls of the startups that the Tech Guys work with, we see people from America, China, Korea, India, Pakistan, England, Germany, Australia, France, Iran, Egypt and many other countries. Somehow the US produces a surfeit of lawyers and accountants, but not enough technologists.

If we don’t let the people come to the jobs, the jobs will come to the people. Venture capitalists will fund the companies where the best people are. Historically that has been in America, in places like Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, Seattle and Northern Virginia.

However, increasingly the best technologists and entrepreneurs are in Bangalore, Shanghai, Seoul, Singapore and Shenzhen. Most of those city names are familiar to most Americans, but Shenzhen may not be. However, more than twice as many people live in Shenzhen than New York City. The Asian century is upon us. The train is moving and one can either lament it or climb aboard and influence the ride to one’s advantage.

Startups initially need just a handful of experts, but these experts are often hard to find. If they can’t be found or imported, the damage to America is untold. Perhaps the cure for cancer won’t be found or the next Internet won’t be built. Leading companies like Yahoo, Google, Intel, Sun and eBay would never have existed, because they were all founded by immigrant entrepreneurs.

In 2006, the National Venture Capital Association produced a study that showed that 25% of U.S. public venture-backed companies were founded by immigrants, and that about 50% of all venture-backed startups were founded by immigrant entrepreneurs. Thus, these entrepreneurs are not taking away American jobs — they are creating jobs for all Americans.

We wish more American children would grow up to become scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, and we should all work hard to increase the percentage of our kids that do. However with only 4.7% of the world’s population, and with current American cultural trends, we will never be able to produce enough technologists.

Therefore, let’s not be afraid of growth. We need to attract immigrants of all types including the highly educated, highly motivated and the highly wealthy. Tax and regulatory policies need to support that goal also.

The world of 2010 and beyond is flatter and more competitive than ever. America should not fear immigration; in fact it will be our salvation. The history of America is the history of immigrants, and it will always be so. It should not be fought, it should be embraced.

Next TechGuys Column: A winning position for the GOP — an enthusiastic embrace of immigration.

Charles Curran and Patrick Ennis have spent over 35 combined years as technology investors and innovators. We live in Washington, DC and Washington State, respectively.

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