The Agenda

The New Consensus on Skilled Immigration?

Last night, my friend Nick Schulz, a scholar at AEI and editor of The American, asked an excellent question at the presidential debate sponsored by CNN and the Heritage Foundation:

I have a question about high-skilled immigration. We hear a lot about low-skilled immigration, so I want to ask you about high-skilled immigration.

What would you do to ensure that the United States is as welcoming as possible to the world’s skilled immigrants and entrepreneurs?

To my surprise, the answers, from Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney, were positive. The following is from Romney:

The right course for our immigration system is to say we welcome people who want to come here legally. We’re going to have a system that makes that easier and more transparent. But to make sure we’re able to bring in the best and brightest — and, by the way, I agree with the speaker in terms of — I’d staple a green card to the diploma of anybody who’s got a degree of math, science, a Masters degree, Ph.D.

We want those brains in our country. But in order to bring people in legally we’ve got to stop illegal immigration. That means turning off the magnets of amnesty, in-state tuition for illegal aliens, employers that knowingly hire people that have come here illegally.

Several of the Republican candidates embrace the idea that Congress should separate an effort to increase skilled immigration from calls for comprehensive immigration reform, a stance that President Obama has consistently rejected. Unfortunately, Wolf Blitzer insisted on moving the conversation away from skilled immigration, perhaps because he was hoping to spark controversy or because he failed to recognize that skilled immigration is an important issue in itself that merits sustained discussion.

Nick has written about skilled immigration on a number of occasions, e.g., in a recent article for Forbes.com:

For too long the nation’s immigration policy has been stuck. The pursuit of a “comprehensive” immigration reform that would also address concerns about the country’s porous border with Mexico has gotten nowhere. As a result, little has been done to improve the country’s approach to skilled immigrants.

Put aside concerns about low-skilled immigration for a moment. There is wide consensus among those who have studied the issue that skilled immigrants are a net positive for the receiving country.

As Barry Chiswick, the editor of “High-Skilled Immigration in a Global Labor Market” and one of America’s deans of immigration research, notes, “ High-skilled immigrants expand the productive potential of the economy in which they reside, thereby increasing the growth rate of total-factor productivity. High-skilled immigration to the United States, therefore, enhances the international competitiveness of the U.S. economy and attracts foreign capital to the country. High-skilled immigration adds workers to the labor force who tend to pay more in taxes than they receive in public benefits… As a result, they tend to have a positive net fiscal balance.”

Chiswick’s empirical case is particularly compelling given current economic and political realities.

Nick has also published Vivek Wadhwa on the same subject. In a 2008 article, Wadhwa described some of his research findings:

We found that at the end of 2006, there were 200,000 employment-based principals waiting for labor certification, which is the first step in the U.S. immigration process. The number of pending I-140 applications, the second step of the immigration process, stood at 50,132. This was over seven times the number in 1996. The number of employment-based principals with approved I-140 applications and unfiled or pending I-485s, or the last step in the immigration process, was 309,823, a threefold increase from a decade earlier. Overall, there were 500,040 employment-based principals (in the three main employment visa categories of EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3) waiting for legal permanent residence. And the total including family members was 1,055,084.

These numbers are particularly troubling when you consider there are only around 120,000 visas available for skilled immigrants in the EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3 categories. To make things worse, no more than 7 percent of the visas are allocated to immigrants from any one country. So immigrants from countries with large populations like India and China have the same number of visas available (8,400) as those from Iceland and Poland.

This means that immigrants like Sanjay who file for permanent resident visas today could be waiting indefinitely. H-1B visas are valid for up to six years and can be extended if the applicant has filed for a permanent resident visa. The problem is that once these workers have started the process, they can’t change employers or even be promoted to a different job in the same company without taking the risk of having to restart the application process and move to the back of the line. Their spouses aren’t allowed to work or obtain Social Security numbers, which are usually needed for things like bank accounts and driver’s licenses. And these workers can’t lay deep roots in American society because of the uncertainty about their future. 

Wadhwa has written about the issue more recently as well.

I should add that this view of skilled immigration is not universally embraced, as Wadhwa and Schulz make clear. As Richard Freeman has argued, there are two popular grand narrative about global labor: the “great labor shortage” and the “global labor glut.” Freeman writes the following with regards to the former view:

[T]hese alarmist analyses do direct attention toward two important demographic developments. The first is that, barring a huge change in immigration policy, the U.S. workforce will grow more slowly than it has in the past half century or so. The second is that the labor force growth will be concentrated in minority groups that have historically obtained less education and thus possess lower work skills than the majority population. As a result, shortage analysts fear that the growth of skilled labor will decline and produce bottlenecks in production that could reduce growth of GDP per capita. Many argue that the United States could avoid these problems by investing in education and training in high-technology areas such as science and engineering, particularly among the disadvantaged minority groups who may otherwise not gain sufficient skills to do well in the economy.

And later he adds:

The lesson from the 1990s regarding increased employment of science and engineering workers is clear: if the U.S. economy demands more highly skilled workers during the period of projected slow labor force growth, it can increase supplies by admitting more immigrants trained in fields with rising labor demand, as it did in the 1990s. The rising supply of highly educated persons overseas, many of whom major in science and engineering, suggests that as long as the United States is an attractive place to work and is open to immigration, it cannot experience a shortage in the science and engineering workforce.

Yet the anxiety is that this strategy will tend to depress the wages of native-born science and engineering workers. The counterargument is that, as Freeman goes on to suggest, a higher absolute number of science and engineering workers creates positive spillovers. For example, more skilled immigrants might mean more entrepreneurial job creation, which is the view embraced by Schulz and Wadhwa. 

But again, there are influential constituencies, e.g., aging programmers and other technical workers, who fear being undercut by “cheap foreign imports,” and who are uninterested in the larger-scale, longer-term impacts on job creation, as those invisible benefits don’t seem to outweigh the visible, immediate harms. 

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