Guest Post: Washington Forgets Best Case for Immigration Reform


Written by: Richard Herman The White House has once again announced its commitment to immigration law reform in early 2010. So far, however, there is no sign that the administration, the Congress, or any other national leaders have learned the lessons from past attempts on this issue, most notably the ugly debate and legislative failure in 2007.

Ask people on the street what they think of when they hear the word "immigrant" --- particularly with 10% unemployment in the country ---- and you will hear statements like: "They take our jobs," "They bring crime," "They steal our health care," "They don't learn English."

Americans hear the word "immigrant" and imagine the worst. They think of illegal immigrants, competition for jobs and the stamping out of American culture.

They don't think of the tendency of immigrants--especially today's immigrants-- to create jobs, to revitalize communities, and to adopt and strengthen American culture, because no one is reminding them of this.

Humanitarian arguments to legalize 12 million undocumented immigrants dominate the public discourse on immigration law reform. This is a mistake.

Instead of focusing on illegal immigrants, policy-makers should focus on legal immigrants--the vast majority of all immigrants--and their power as an economic engine. Economic policy has never driven immigration debates ---- that must change.

In the new book, Immigrant, Inc. ---- Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (and how they will save the American worker) (John Wiley, November, 2009), which I co-wrote with Robert L. Smith, we document how immigrants have created millions of jobs for Americans and now represent the most powerful job-creating force today.

Consider the following:

  • Immigrants are almost twice as likely as native-born Americans to start a business.
  • Immigrants are twice as likely as native-born Americans to file for a U.S. patent.
  • Immigrants constitute the majority of Ph.D. candidates in many science and engineering programs at U.S. universities.
  • Immigrants founded more than half of the high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, and twenty-five percent nationwide.
  • Many brilliant immigrants are turned away from this country because of an immigration system that does not value their skills.

To succeed in a knowledge-based economy, America needs an advanced-degreed, entrepreneurial, and globally-connected population. Today's immigrants bring these skills to the table --- with aces. Their world-class talents translate into the creation of new industries and generations of new jobs for Americans.

Immigration reform would also inject billions of dollars into the economy. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that $66 billion in new revenue over 10 years would have been generated if supporters of the 2006 immigration reform bill had succeeded in legalizing most undocumented immigrants.

Jobs and fiscal responsibility ----- this should be the message ----- not earned amnesty and candlelight vigils.

Recently, syndicated columnist Neal Peirce of The Washington Post Writers Group argued that a new line of thought could drive a more productive discussion. "The mere fact that immigrants are an asset, not a liability, puts a whole new face on the Lou Dobbs-style attacks on America's 12 million undocumented immigrants," he wrote.

Welcoming immigrant innovators and entrepreneurs is "a virtually guaranteed stimulus to our economy and to our creative capacity for this century," Peirce argues.

The problem is, it's hard for the innovators and entrepreneurs to get in. The current immigration system reserves only 9% of the coveted "green cards" for highly-skilled or investor immigrants. Instead of waiting in a years-long line, more and more super talent is leaving the U.S. or deciding not to come in the first place. That's why reform is essential.

So, while the right-wing begins the public outcry on undocumented immigrants or problems with H1B visas, the pro-immigration side should not allow the powerful, economic issues to be forgotten.

A job-creating message will soften the conversation, inject rationality into the discussion, and increase the chances of something getting passed. The White House should help coordinate a public education campaign that explains how smart immigration is good for America, especially in a smart economy.

To get that message out, they should employ the services of some immigrants who have been quite busy lately: People like Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google, Andy Grove, who gave us Intel, or Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

The President could talk about immigrant-founded companies like Dow Chemical, DuPont, Pfizer, Proctor & Gamble, Carnegie (later U.S.) Steel. He should remind America that immigration has historically been our competitive advantage.

That's a fact that is more real today than ever before.

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Richard Herman is the co-author of Immigrant Inc.--- Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs are Driving the New Economy (and how they will save the American worker (John Wiley & Sons, November, 2009)

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