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SHAPIRO: Smart immigration could save the U.S. economy

Reform should focus on high-skilled immigrants

- - Sunday, February 24, 2013

For the last several years the immigration debate in Washington has been much like America’s immigration system itself – disorganized, vague and without clear borders. Fortunately, it seems like we’re starting to make progress. Thanks in part to President Obama’s State of the Union address and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on Feb. 13, more Americans and lawmakers are becoming aware of our broken immigration system and are evaluating ways to enact change.

“High-skilled immigrants have always been job creators, not job takers,” AOL co-founder Steve Case said in his testimony urging lawmakers to consider immigration reform. Earlier this month, Mr. Case met with Mr. Obama and other business leaders, like Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer, where they echoed the message that attracting the best and brightest needs to be a component of immigration reform.

At a House Judiciary Committee immigration hearing on Feb. 5, Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, paralleled that debate by dedicating the opening panel of his hearing to address the effectiveness of highly skilled immigration, a key priority for the nation and for innovation industries like consumer electronics. “The decisions we make on immigration will either facilitate this [economic] rebound or trip up the entrepreneurs who are working to make it happen,” said witness Vivek Wadhwa, a researcher at Duke University. 

In his testimony, Mr. Wadhwa highlighted the importance of reform, illustrating why skilled workers are the catalyst for growth and job creation, and how we can attract the best and brightest to America to innovate and stay. Almost every technological advancement you can think of, whether it be computer advancement, manufacturing, robotics, digital medicine, education technology or DNA sequencing – all have come with foreign-born workers leading the charge, Mr. Wadhwa said. 

Some lawmakers are proving they are serious about immigration reform by walking the walk instead of just talking the talk, as many new initiatives are coming down the pipeline. Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, introduced the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, otherwise known as the “I-Squared Act,” which would adjust the H-1B cap, increasing the number of visas for skilled workers. Earlier this month, Sen. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican, introduced the Startup Act 3.0, which would help attract and retain foreign entrepreneurs in the United States.

Almost two months into this new year, and we have heard a steady drumbeat of calls to action for lawmakers to take notice of this important issue to rectify our downtrodden economy. Entrepreneurs are also joining the call. Tech leaders like Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian are urging lawmakers to pursue smart strategic immigration through the Innovation Movement.

Encouraging innovation through skilled immigration is a no-brainer. The reality is many immigrants come to the United States as students and plan to start companies after graduation. America’s restrictive immigration laws, however, prevent many of these individuals from staying in the United States. From 1995 to 2005, 52 percent of Silicon Valley’s technology and engineering companies were started by immigrants, but since 2005 this percentage has dropped to 44 percent. Obviously our visa policies are not encouraging foreign-born innovators and self-starters to stay; rather, our current laws push entrepreneurs abroad to work for our competitors.

To restore America’s economy, we must modernize our nation’s legal immigration system. Our immigration policies have failed to adapt, placing our nation’s competitive advantage at risk. Our laws must be updated to allow a foreign national who receives an advanced degree in a STEM field from a university in the United States to stay in our country to innovate, rather than be forced to leave upon graduation. Congress should similarly pursue policies for foreign-born entrepreneurs who start businesses, provided they have sufficient investment and employ U.S. citizens.

I hope that 2013 continues to see efforts by lawmakers and business leaders who are willing to lead the charge on reforming this law. Opening our doors to migrant workers who are willing to take risks and innovate is the right decision for our economy, global competitiveness and future. 

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and author most recently of "Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses" (William Morrow, 2013).