The Case for More Skilled Immigration
October 29, 2015
Since President Obama’s 2012 election, little in the way of important economic legislation has been passed. Republicans have stubbornly refused to raise taxes while Democrats have drawn a ring around entitlement programs like Social Security. Congressional Republicans have wasted the last several years fruitlessly trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and Democrats have taken a turn to the left recently in their efforts to undermine the Trans Pacific Partnership. The 113th Congress (2013-2015) was one of the least productive ever, and the 114th appears (2015-2017) that it will follow the same path. Skilled immigration reform, at least in theory, represents the rare possibility to break the impasse between liberals and conservatives.
By Aaron Jordan, Penn Law ’16
Business-friendly Republicans want companies to have access to the best possible employees, while Democrats have long been proud proponents of a more diverse and multicultural society.
Yet both parties have nativist streaks that appear to be growing stronger. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, has repeatedly stated that he thinks the shortage of tech workers is a “hoax”(1). Meanwhile, organized labor, which has shown renewed muscle in the trade debate, would attempt to convince liberals to oppose skilled immigration reform. Other Democrats may hold out on high skilled immigration reform because they want such changes to be coupled with help for the country‘s poor undocumented workers.
The continuing failure to pass high skilled immigration reform represents a prime example of Washington incompetence. Broadening visa programs for skilled immigrants would generate economic growth, foment business creation, and strengthen American geopolitical interests.
The economic benefits of increased skilled immigration are both vast and apparent. Economists are virtually unanimous on the subject: a poll of elite economists by the University of Chicago Booth School, found that 49% strongly agreed and another 46% agreed that the “average US citizen would be better off if a larger number of highly educated foreign workers were legally allowed to immigrate to the US each year.” The other 5% were uncertain; not a single top economist disagreed with the statement (2).
The reasons for this virtual unanimity are myriad. High-skilled immigrants tend to have moderate to high incomes, meaning they spend money on various good and services in America. Immigrants are significantly more likely to start a business (3); South-African born serial entrepreneur and Penn graduate Elon Musk has already started Pay Pal, Space X, and Tesla. E-Bay was founded by a French-born son of Iranian immigrants, Google was co-founded by a Russian, and Yahoo was co-started by a Taiwanese immigrant. Foreign born actors have headlined Hollywood films for years: Christian Bale (England), Liam Neeson (Ireland), Penelope Cruz (Spain), and Charlize Theron (South Africa) are just a few members in the long-line of immigrant movie stars. Daniel Day-Lewis, who recently won his third Oscar for playing none other than Abraham Lincoln, is English-Irish. And celebrities do actually have visa problems: Daniel Radcliffe was stopped at the Canadian border, and several Latin popstars have had to cancel American tours.
Opponents of high-skilled immigration tend to view the number of jobs in an economy as set in stone. Their simple logic goes as follows: for every job an immigrant takes, that is one less position for an American. Yet this zero-sum fallacy completely forgets to account for the entrepreneurial tendencies of immigrants, which result in an untold number of jobs for Americans. Nor does the zero-sum argumentation account for spillover effects: the more immigrants that there are in the U.S, the more money that is spent on American food, clothing, cars, etc. Finally, there is a clear efficiency rationale for hiring the best person possible, regardless of nationality: it’s better to have Australian star Russell Crowe play Maximus in Gladiator than a B-list American actor, and few people would pick a mediocre American doctor over a superstar immigrant one if they were about to undergo open heart surgery.
High-skilled immigrants are also good for the social safety net. They pay substantial taxes, yet are not allowed to collect benefits for a number of years. Moreover, as the median age in America continues to rise and birth rates per adult continue to stall, immigrants can provide the necessary tax revenues to sustain entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.
There are also geopolitical reasons for expanding skilled immigration. As China continues to grow, America will find it increasingly difficult to stay ahead economically and militarily. A wave of talented immigrants would help America maintain its lead. Moreover, Sino-American relations would be better served if future Chinese leaders have studied or worked in the U.S. Current Chinese leaders tend to believe the worst about Americans, but the future generation is likely to have softer views because many have attended college, graduate school, or worked in the states. This is because countries that have a high percentage of immigrants tend to the assess the U.S. favorably; for instance, America maintained a fairly objectionable foreign policy in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador (overthrowing a democratically elected government in the former and support military dictatorships in both), yet the U.S. is viewed quite highly in both countries because many Salvadorans and Guatemalans have friends or family that have thrived in the United States (4).
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has put forth a bill, The Immigration Innovation Act, which would almost triple the number of slots available under the H-1B visa program for skilled workers (5). While it does not go far enough, and unfortunately does nothing to help the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., the Immigration Innovation Act would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction. The bill would lead to more jobs, faster economic growth, speed up innovation, sure up the social safety net, and would promote American interests abroad. If the Immigration Innovation Act is to fail, it would not be a referendum on high skilled immigration, but rather would serve as a sorry reflection of our broken politics.
- High-Skilled Immigrants
- Give Us Your Geniuses: Why Seeking Smart Immigrants Is a No-Brainer
- Chapter 4: Global Publics View the United States
- SEN. HATCH INTRODUCES S. 153 TO INCREASE H-1B VISAS
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