Immigration reform can jumpstart economy

Photo of Ryan Young & Alex Nowrasteh
Ryan Young & Alex Nowrasteh
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      Ryan Young & Alex Nowrasteh

      Ryan Young is a Fellow in Regulatory Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Alex Nowrasteh is a Policy Analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Jeffrey is a talented electrical engineering PhD student at CalTech. He already holds three patents. One of his inventions may cure glaucoma. It is a tiny electrical device that can be implanted behind the human eyeball. It works automatically, can wirelessly interact with medical software, and doesn’t require a battery. After graduation, Jeffrey plans on starting his own company to produce it and help the roughly four million Americans who suffer from glaucoma.

Sounds like the beginning of a typical American success story. But Jeffrey’s story is not as uplifting as it seems. That’s because the government might kick him out of the country. He is not a criminal; Jeffrey Lin’s only offense is that he is from Taiwan.

Jeffrey and hundreds of thousands of foreign students in similar situations will create many start-up firms, create jobs, and improve technology one way or another. They just might not do so in the United States. Our immigration laws may well force Jeffrey, his ideas, and his talent back to Taiwan or to another welcoming country like Canada.

Fortunately, reform might be just around the corner. A bill called the STAPLE Act is currently winding its way through Congress. It would remove the numerical cap on H-1B visas. It would also automatically approve employer-sponsored green cards for foreign PhD students who graduate from American universities in the sciences, technology, engineering, or mathematics (what education wonks call the STEM fields).

H-1B visas are employer-sponsored visas for highly skilled workers in specialty occupations. They run for three years and can be renewed once. Currently, there are only 20,000 H-1B spots for foreigners graduating from American universities. Actual demand is far higher. The STAPLE Act essentially raises the cap by exempting some petitioners from it.

The STAPLE act is hardly a comprehensive reform. But it would help a lot of people like Jeffrey who came to the U.S. for its top-notch education system, and would like to stay because of its relatively excellent entrepreneurial environment. As the U.S. economy struggles to recover, it could use as many Jeffrey Lins as it can get.

Under the current system, Jeffrey has a chance of eventually getting a green card. But it will probably take at least six years. And it could take many more after his graduation. Until then, he will live a life of uncertainty dominated by filling out forms for the federal government and enduring restrictions on where he can work and what he can do.

Starting a business under such scrutiny is out of the question. Legal immigrants routinely tell stories of accidentally making errors on immigration forms and then having to begin the process all over again. Why should Jeffrey bother to raise capital or hire workers for his company when he might be forced to drop it if he is deported? Why would he buy a home or start a family? America is the land of entrepreneurs. Yet this is how the law treats many of those entrepreneurs.

Nationwide, immigrants like Jeffrey earn well over half of all engineering PhDs. Forty percent of PhD scientists working in the U.S. and a third of Silicon Valley’s scientists and engineers are foreign born. They invent and create economic opportunities for themselves and Americans.

  • skilled_immigrant

    It is amazing to see how quickly people respond with hate and rhetoric without understanding facts about high-skilled immigration.
    While the H1B system has its flaws, the authors here hit the nail on the head when it comes to depicting how our immigration system (read high-skilled green card system..this is DIFFERENT from H1B) actually harms US innovation and technology by making skilled talent wait for decades to get a green card. It is a FACT that most companies in silicon valley (including Google) have been founded by immigrants with advanced skills. A stagerring 25-30% of international patents originating from the US have a foreign inventor’s name listed.
    People stuck in green card backlogs for years are not taking away anyone’s jobs. They have been living, working, owning homes in the US for years and are part of this country. I have worked with several companies across the US and have always received only appreciation and respect from my American colleagues who value knowledge and talent. I only hope everyone is as aware and open-minded as they are. If we do not resolve the high-skilled green card backlog problem, the next Google or Ford will be created in China, taking away even white-collar jobs from the U.S – in addition to the blue-collar jobs we have already lost.

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