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Reforming Immigration and Fracking


The Washington Post had a story yesterday looking into the problem the U.S. has with high-skilled immigrants — our immigration system isn’t designed to keep them here. Take this example:

Anurag Bajpayee and Prakash Narayan Govindan, both from India, have started a company to sell the system to oil businesses that are desperate for a cheaper, cleaner way to dispose of the billions of gallons of contaminated water produced by fracking.

Oil companies have flown them to Texas and North Dakota. They say they are about to close on millions of dollars in financing, and they expect to hire 100 employees in the next couple of years. Scientific American magazine called water-decontamination technology developed by Bajpayee one of the top 10 “world-changing ideas” of 2012.

But their student visas expire soon, both before summer, and because of the restrictive U.S. visa system, they may have to move their company to India or another country. “We love it here,” said Bajpayee, a cheerful 27-year-old in an argyle sweater and jeans. “But there are so many hoops you have to jump through. And you risk getting deported while you are creating jobs.”

Much as I might like to deport people who are known to use the rhetoric of “job creators,” you’d think, so long as the U.S. is offering visas to hundreds of thousands of foreigners every year, Bajpayee and Govindan seem like the kind of people to whom we should be giving them. WaPo continues:

From the halls of MIT to the boardrooms of Silicon Valley, business and academic leaders are more focused on what they call an even greater threat to the U.S. economy: immigration laws that chase away highly skilled foreigners educated in U.S. universities, often with degrees funded by U.S. taxpayers.

While other countries are actively recruiting foreign-born U.S. graduates, the United States has strict limits on visas for highly skilled workers that often put them on waiting lists of many years. And unlike Canada and other countries, the United States offers no specific visa for young entrepreneurs like Bajpayee and Narayan who want to start a business in America.

“We train these people and then we push them away, while Chile and the U.K. and Canada are coming in to recruit them,” said Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. “These are people who are creating jobs. It is so outrageous to me.” . . .

Many foreign governments and companies are actively recruiting in U.S. centers of higher education from Cambridge, Mass., to Stanford, Calif., offering top graduates alternatives to the expensive, lengthy, difficult and, some say, even hostile U.S. visa system.

Switzerland, for example, has a “science consulate” with a sleek, modern storefront on a street between MIT and Harvard devoted to promoting Swiss companies and universities to top students.

NRO contributor Mark Krikorian is quoted in the article criticizing the idea of an “entrepreneur’s visa” which some countries use to lure innovators like the two Indians described, pointing out that businesses come and go, and that the definition might be easily distorted. While that’s certainly true, it would seem sensible to replace some of the U.S. immigration system’s less justifiable and beneficial admission programs — the diversity lottery, for one, and the extremely wide-ranging chain-immigration opportunities offered to relatives of U.S. citizens and green-card holders — with visas targeted at people for whom our labor market clearly has an unmet demand (STEM graduates) and who are likely to start successful businesses (even if this is not exactly a guarantee that they will create x jobs or end up with a company with y market cap).

Both of these characteristics are also not extremely easy to define, but one such proposal was passed by the House last December, which would create a program granting 50,000 visas to holders of doctorate degrees in STEM fields, in place of the diversity lottery, which currently allocates the same number of visas per year to randomly picked people from the 170 or so countries deemed to be underrepresented among American immigrants. (It was create in 1990 basically because Ted Kennedy wanted more visas for Irish bartenders/his and my cousins).

#more#It would seem rather bizarre to enact an immigration-reform law this year that gives legal residence to 11 million illegal immigrants immediately while the future of even-cleaner fracking will still be forced to go home to India to apply for another student visa or some other kind of visa that he may or may not get (though that, of course, is just one of the many inequities created by an amnesty). There are many issues that should be addressed by comprehensive immigration reform, but it seems that this one in particular — the fact that we spend a lot less effort structuring our immigration system to the needs of our economy than other countries do — deserves a little more attention than it’s getting. Whether future immigration flows should be lower (as Krikorian would want) or higher (as presumably many liberals would want), it seems an important priority to make the composition of those flows more conducive to economic growth.

But that’s not many Americans’, or their politicians’, top priority: For instance, the Democrats who stopped the diversity-for-STEM proposal in the Senate are loath to eliminate or reduce the size of any current immigration categories in exchange for more high-skill visas (some of them also, amazingly, would like to actually reduce the number of high-skill visas). That reality led Senator Rubio to propose that we merely increase the number of visas for skilled workers without reducing any other category (also think of Mitt Romney’s proposal that we provide a new class of visa for all graduates of U.S. STEM Ph.D. programs). But while such a program sweetens the deal for many economic conservatives, it doesn’t do so for restrictionists; it actually makes the deal worse, by increasing future flows from an already too-high level. Further, in Rubio’s proposal and Obama’s, skilled-immigration proposals are coupled with some kind of amnesty, a total giveaway to liberals, making the two immediate, clear policy changes quite unappealing to them (all restrictionist conservatives get is the uncertain promise of some kind of tougher enforcement). This is part of why proposals to keep Indian MIT graduates here haven’t gotten passed — they may seem like no-brainers to Silicon Valley execs and the Washington Post readership, but it’s more complicated than that. Those who see immigration reform as an opportunity to make America more competitive economically should therefore be mindful of the fact that key groups with which they are allied on other issues have other higher or countervailing priorities in mind.