16 September 2012
It is often said that the United States is a “nation of immigrants”. While that can be a cliché, it does capture the important truth that our nation is bound together by things other than a common history. Our strength lies instead with common ideals of individual freedom and responsibility — driven by the limitless opportunities of free enterprise. These ideals and opportunities have served to attract the world’s best and brightest to our shores for generations.
Today, we face a sluggish economic recovery and persistently high unemployment. In these circumstances, some turn against the idea of immigration. I would argue just the opposite. I believe that history shows that immigrants can only strengthen our efforts to grow our economy, create jobs, and keep America competitive. But to truly leverage the talent, energy, ideas, and hard work of immigrants, we must adopt rational reforms to our immigration system. What’s at stake for our future if we don’t? Innovation, growth, and jobs.
According to the Partnership for a New American Economy, immigrant entrepreneurs are responsible for 18 percent of all Fortune 500 companies, including tech and business giants Google, Yahoo, Big Lots, and BJ’s Wholesale Club. Combined, those enterprises pump $1.7 trillion in annual revenue into our economy and employ 3.7 million workers around the world.
Immigrant-owned small businesses can also make a big impact. As highlighted in the U.S. Chamber’s recent report, Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Creating Jobs and Strengthening the Economy, immigrants are not solely job creators in the high tech sector. They are helping rejuvenate local communities and creating employment opportunities for their neighbors. And they are tapping into high-growth sectors and starting businesses in food, manufacturing, transportation, construction, money transfer and travel services, and tourism. These growth businesses put Americans to work at home and often connect our markets with customers outside of the United States.
America’s top notch colleges and research institutions also help draw the world’s talent. More than half of the master’s and Ph.D. students studying the natural sciences and engineering disciplines at U.S. colleges and universities are foreign born. But after we educate these scientists and engineers in our institutions, U.S. immigration laws discourage them from remaining here. We should abandon this mindless practice. Instead, we should allow the talented individuals we already attract to stay and work in the United States if employers want to hire them. Doing so would help draw global investment, create and retain jobs for our workers, and grow our economy.
What’s more, foreign born individuals with education and expertise in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields are needed to meet the growing demand for high-skilled workers. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce projects that by 2018 there will be 2.8 million job openings in technology-related careers at all levels. Of those jobs, 1.2 million will be new, and 1.6 million will be replacements for retirees—and nearly 800,000 of them will require an advanced degree. However, by 2018, the United States will only have produced about 400,000 American STEM graduates with a master’s or a Ph.D. As a result, we face a skills gap that will compromise our global competitiveness. We must have the right people in those jobs, including high-skilled immigrants, to keep key innovation industries strong and productive.
The bottom line is this: If we are going to continue to attract and retain the world’s most creative entrepreneurs who want to better their lives and add to our economy, we have to adopt a rational immigration policy that harnesses the energy and innovation of enterprising foreigners. We have to cut the red tape that holds back enterprising immigrants and ensure that we welcome job creators of every size and in every sector. It is also critical that we enable high-skilled immigrants and foreign students to invest their talent in our knowledge economy.
If we do not adopt these rational reforms, we will wind up doing something irrational — sending innovation to our competitors at the expense of our own economic growth and job creation.
David Chavern is the Chief Operating Officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October edition.