Half a Loaf on Immigration: Why High Skill Immigration Reform is Essential

Amidst the continuing fireworks over illegal immigration and immigration reform, many people might forget that around one set of immigration issues—the need for more high-skilled immigrants—Congress has already long come to agreement.

The bipartisan “Gang of Eight” proposal included a provision to award green cards to immigrants earning advanced degrees in math, science and engineering from American universities. Another bipartisan bill introduced in January, supported by a diverse group of Senators including Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Amy Klobuchar, would dramatically increase the number of high-skilled, “H-1B” workers entering the country, now capped at 65,000 per year, as well as use increased visa fees to fund domestic education programs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

In fact, high-skilled immigration reform is such a “no-brainer” that business audiences outside Washington are often mystified that Congress hasn’t already passed a high-skill immigration bill.

The reason is, of course, politics.

Some, particularly Democrats, want to tie any movement on high-skill immigration reform to comprehensive immigration reform, recognizing that if a high-skill bill were to pass, the pressure to pass comprehensive reform would lessen. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to let more years pass without reforms that address the need for more high-skill immigrants, particularly in science and engineering. If comprehensive reform goes belly up, which hopefully it will not, Congress should at least pass a stand-alone bill that liberalizes and reforms high-skill immigration or we risk falling further behind our global competitors.

High-skilled immigration has played a vital role in U.S. innovation by making up for the deficits in our current education system in turning out more scientists and engineers. While STEM jobs play a key role in supporting U.S. economic vitality, the U.S. underperforms in STEM education. In 2006, the U.S. had 26 percent of the OECD’s K-12 students but just 14 percent of high-performing math students. Between 1997 and 2009, enrollment in the music theory Advanced Placement test grew by 362 percent, while enrollment in the Computer Science AB test grew just 12 percent. It’s so bad that three times as many students take the Art History AP test as the Computer Science test.

In fact, we appear to be well down the path John Quincy Adams predicted when he said, “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” The only problem is while art history might be personally satisfying it does nothing to make our economy innovative or competitive.

It doesn’t get any better at the college level. The United States ranks just twenty-seventh among developed nations in the share of students receiving STEM undergraduate degrees. In 2009, colleges awarded more undergraduate sports-exercise degrees than electrical engineering degrees. At the same time, up to three quarters of master’s and Ph.D. recipients in STEM fields are foreign-born. And these students are increasingly returning home after they graduate, in part because U.S. immigration policies make it difficult for them to stay.

Unfortunately, too many liberal redistributionists like Hal Salzman tell us we don’t need high skill immigration. They argue that all we need to do is just raise wages and those art history majors will switch to computer science. It turns out that information technology workers with a bachelor’s degree already make $29,000 more annually than art history majors, but it’s apparently not enough to persuade budding art historians to switch majors. Policymakers should reject the notion that STEM jobs are like truck-driving and nursing where wages balance supply and demand. STEM jobs are different because (1) they’re global (if U.S. wages are increased too much, companies will meet demand overseas); and (2) they’re not the kinds of job the majority of people choose in some kind of cost-benefit calculus. The reality is that most STEM workers are born (and then made.) And most of them these days are born overseas.

So given the John Quincy Adams orientation of so many Americans, we must depend for at least the time being on high-skills immigration to power our innovation economy. In fact, at least seven studies have concluded STEM immigrants have created 15 percent to 26 percent of the high-tech companies located in the U.S. At the same time, the limit on high-skilled immigration is now set so low—and the demand for high-skilled workers is so high—that we reached the H-1B cap this year in less than a week.

As our dysfunctional politics again leads to gridlock, other nations are already leaping ahead to grab as much of the high-skilled global workforce as they can. Take Canada. Not only have their leaders cut their corporate tax rate and expanded funding for research and development, they have also expanded high skill immigration, including its Start-up Visa, which provides a path to permanent residency for immigrant entrepreneurs. And Canada has not been shy about contrasting their reforms with the morass that is the American immigration framework. The Canadian government recently had billboards erected in Silicon Valley headlined with the slogan “H1-B Problems? PIVOT to Canada.” As Canada illustrates, if we choose to continue to restrict high skill immigration, other nations are more than happy to welcome those workers, with it being our loss.

So by all means the House and Senate should work to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. But if they can’t, can we at least attempt, despite our bitterly divided politics, to get something done? In this case, we ought to at least be able to pass a robust stand-alone high skill immigration bill that will drive U.S. competitiveness and job growth.

Robert D. Atkinson

Robert D. Atkinson is President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.