From taxi drivers to high-tech intellectuals, immigrants are a core element of the American economy. The U.S. immigrant population has grown by 7.4 million in a span of nine years, and immigration remains a polarized discussion today.
At a recent forum hosted by Brookings Institution and George Mason University, immigration policies toward the high-skilled migrant workforce and the role of immigrants in innovation were discussed. The event was divided into two panels. While the first discussed the brightest immigrants in America and the continuing trend of foreign workers, the second focused on high-skilled workers and their impact on the U.S. economy.
The focus of the first panel was on international students pursuing their doctoral degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields from Universities in the US. Robert Hamilton in his presentation noted that American science and technology human capital base marks an increasing representation of foreign S&E doctorates. Four nations dominating the space are China, India, South Korea and Taiwan. (See the pdf for details) Another set of arguments put forth by Lindsay Lowell, was the importance of regulating the admission of foreign-born STEM workers as not all of them would turn out as stars of innovation. (Click here for details) However, the panels together agreed that the immigration policies need to be revisited in order to retain the best migrants. In development, we often talk about the value that foreign students studying in the U.S. bring back to their home communities when they return from their studies. From a U.S. economic development perspective, retaining these students is also appealing.
Darrell West, Director of Governance studies at Brookings, mentioned the importance of reorienting U.S. immigration policy to foster U.S economy. He suggested automatic green cards for highly skilled immigrant workers in order to retain the productivity gains (estimated $37 billion). Other panelists highlighted the importance of creating “point” based system for green cards in lines with Canada and Australia. The discussion also focused on the institutionalization of provisional visas as test of waters for both employer and the migrants and to also restrict the companies to legally pay below-market wage rate to migrants. In addition, Ron Hira, mentioned that if the H1-B and L-1 visas are not revised then chances are high that more American workers will be displaced citing cases of Pfizer, Nielsen, Bank of America, IBM, and Siemens. (See pdf for details)
Even with the economic recession, the U.S. still remains a top destination for immigrants. The Brookings event brought attention to the high skilled labor entering the U.S., reminding us that the immigration debate goes beyond migrant workers and border security.