- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 5, 2010


With Arizona embroiled in debate over tough new immigration laws and white-hot radio debate practically calling for snipers at the border, President Obama says it’s time to take another crack at comprehensive immigration reform.

His call to renew the immigration debate no doubt leaves many Americans thinking, “Here we go again,” exhausted as we all are from the national brawl over health care reform. Goodbye, public option, hello amnesty?

But there lies a path to immigration reform that could transform an outdated system and also win the speedy approval of most Americans. Already floating around the Senate in various immigration proposals is a dash of high-skill immigration reform.

More specifically, the plan would offer fast-track visas to immigrants with rare talent and ingenuity. It would, in other words, extend a wider welcome to men and women most likely to enhance America’s competitiveness and create jobs.

Now that’s an idea a skeptical public might not bother to oppose.

There are other far-reaching and surely controversial proposals in various bills, according to what the senators have divulged so far. Tamper-proof national ID cards. A mea culpa from immigrants who entered illegally. Harsher sanctions for employers who willingly hire them.

But the high-skill stuff is the game-changer. So powerful and sensible is high-skill immigration, it might as well inspire its own reform bill.

Senators might keep that in mind if comprehensive change proves impossible in a poisonous political climate.

To welcome high-skill immigrants is to promote a lucrative and little-known phenomenon. While the country was preoccupied with illegal immigrants, legal immigrants were building the new economy.

Many of the founders of Google, Intel, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems, AST Research, eBay and YouTube are immigrants. New Americans are behind more than half of the high-tech companies in Silicon Valley and about a quarter of the biotech companies in New England.

In a global economy fueled by technology and innovation, high-skill immigrants have become America’s competitive edge.

Always a self-selected group of strivers, today’s immigrants often hail from nations that stress math and science education. Drop them into a smart economy in a free-market democracy, and marvels happen.

Today’s immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to earn an advanced degree, invent something and be awarded a U.S. patent. According to research by the Kauffman Foundation, they are almost twice as likely to start their own business.

Despite the anti-illegal-immigrant attitudes of recent years and recent weeks, America remains the greatest nation on Earth, and the world’s best and brightest still want to come here. The problem is, often they cannot get in. Every day, we bar and eject world-class talent - legal, high-skilled immigrants - because we have not decided what to do about illegal immigrants.

Harvard researcher Vivek Wadhwa warns of a reverse brain drain under way. For probably the first time in U.S. history, he argues, skilled immigrants are leaving America in large numbers - partly because of the prospect of jobs elsewhere in a rapidly developing world and partly because of frustration with the U.S. immigration process, which often makes them wait years for an immigrant visa.

New Senate proposals offer an immigrant visa to any international student who graduates from a U.S. university with a master’s or a doctoral degree in one of the critical fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

“It makes no sense to educate the world’s future inventors and engineers and then force them to leave when they are able to contribute to our economy,” backers have argued. As the editors of Inside Higher Ed have noted, that simple step would likely boost efforts by American universities to recruit the planet’s top scientists and graduate students.

It also could calm the fringe crowd and enlighten the discussion.

“Solving illegal immigration is more often than not phrased as a choice between amnesty and mass deportation,” wrote Jena McNeill, a homeland security analyst at the Heritage Foundation, in the foundation news blog the Foundry.

“Most Americans want a solution that does neither,” she added. “They want an immigration system that enforces the law, helps the economy, betters America’s image, and brings new immigrants into the United States, much like their ancestors did not so long ago.”

Stressing high-skill immigration reform is a winning formula, moving the debate away from fear and prejudice and toward jobs and opportunity.

More important, they remind us what immigrants bring to America and why their talents may be needed now more than ever.

Richard Herman and Robert L. Smith are co-authors of “Immigrant, Inc. - Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy” (Wiley & Sons, 2009).

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