Robert E. Litan
Highly skilled immigrants (HSIs), particularly foreign-born workers with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, have helped catalyze American economic growth. Their efforts have spawned new products and services that create wealth and advance our standard of living. And a number of studies document that HSIs are highly innovative and more likely to start and grow companies, which are a vital source of new jobs.
Unfortunately, current U. S. immigration policy limits our ability to fully benefit from the growth-enhancing contributions HSIs can make. H-1B temporary work visas, good for up to three years, are available in meager numbers and require a sponsoring employer. They can only be renewed once and may not lead to permanent residency. The program also inhibits visa holders from changing jobs and starting companies.
Permanent-resident EB visas cover skilled and professional workers and well-heeled business investors. However, only a limited number of EB visas go to citizens of any one country, and allotments must cover spouses and dependents. Estimates are that HSIs receive only about 3% of the approximately 1 million green cards issued annually.
Skilled workers are increasingly turning to more-welcoming nations with less-restrictive entry requirements, or are electing to stay at home where economies are often growing faster than ours. More-effective policies that encourage HSIs to come to and stay in the U. S. are needed to foster economic growth and address a looming shortage of scientists and engineers created by an aging STEM population.
One place to start is in the academic community. The U. S. system of higher education is highly regarded globally and continues to attract foreign-born talent. And foreign-born people earn a disproportionate and substantially large number of the STEM graduate degrees awarded by U. S. universities.
Why not let these students remain in the U. S. after graduation? Our country makes a substantial economic and knowledge investment in foreign students, and those students can contribute significantly to a pipeline of talent for high-skill labor, innovation, and entrepreneurial ventures.
In addition, economic communities and networks develop around strong academic programs and their graduates, both native and foreign-born. Silicon Valley and the Research Triangle are two such examples. It is foolish and self-defeating that we do not reap the benefits of these high-quality American educations and experiences.
Therefore, foreign-born persons who earn a graduate degree from a U. S. university, particularly in a STEM discipline, should receive a green card or at least a provisional visa. Provisional visas would let the holder live and work in the United States as long as he or she satisfied certain conditions, such as English fluency and no criminal record. Workers could transition to permanent status after a period of time by meeting additional expectations — such as regular employment or starting a business. Provisional visas eliminate the uncertainty that characterizes temporary visas, but also mitigates societal risks by only granting permanent status after the holders demonstrate their assimilation and contribution to society.
A U. S. economy that needs innovation and economic growth is ill-served by today’s outdated regulations. A vast number of HSIs are waiting to contribute to these goals, and our immigration policy should take better advantage of the opportunities HSIs present.
The Kauffman Foundation is the world’s largest foundation devoted to entrepreneurship.