The U.S. Shouldn’t Wait to Fix Immigration for Skilled Workers

by Rohan Poojara

Mark Krikorian has criticized my recommendation that improving the legal immigration system for skilled workers would be more beneficial to the American economy than squabbling over illegal-immigration issues. He stresses that the “best and brightest are already able to stay here, and do,” when in fact America is facing a reverse brain-drain crisis. As immigration expert and Harvard Law School researcher Vivek Wadhwa explains in his recent congressional testimony and in the Washington Post:

• First, the world’s best and brightest are not begging to be let into the United States anymore.

• Second, the U.S. no longer possesses the advantage in entrepreneurship that some believe it does.

• Finally, the U.S. is providing an unintentional gift to China and India by causing frustrated skilled immigrants to return home thanks to a burdensome visa application process.

Krikorian cites this year’s Nobel Prize winners to make the point that native-born Americans dominate the sciences. However, this small sample ignores the broader historical trend — one quarter of American Nobel Prize winners since 1901 (the first year the prizes were awarded) have been immigrants. As recently as 2009, five of the eight American winners were immigrants.

Most important to address is Krikorian’s claim that fixing the broken immigration system for skilled workers isn’t possible until America has full control of its illegal-immigration problem, in particular the “visa overstayers” — immigrants who entered legally and never left. In the absence of better data from US-VISIT, it is impossible to determine how many “visa overstayers,” out of the estimated 4.5–6 million in the U.S., entered the country on H-1B visas. We do know, however, that in 2006, less than 2 percent of the 5.8 million visas issued were H-1Bs. In view of the small number of H-1B visas issued annually, it would be unrealistic and unfair to single out H-1B workers as primary “visa overstayers.”

There is undoubtedly a need for better solutions to control illegal immigration, but in the meantime, changes in the laws for legal immigrants that would shift the focus away from granting visas based on family ties and toward a system based on employer demand is a pro-growth step that we should embrace. Immigrants’ productivity raises the U.S. GDP by an estimated $37 billion per year, and with the baby-boomer generation retiring by the thousands every day, highly skilled workers who contribute to innovation are the right choice for America.

— Rohan Poojara is a research assistant in the economic policy studies group at AEI.

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