Christopher Swann

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Smart immigrants will help US prosper

July 8, 2009

NEW YORK, July 8 (Reuters) – It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago many American were worried about a wave of aspiring immigrants. The recession has proved a more effective solution to the problem than miles of walls and an army of over-zealous border officials.
Illegal crossings from Mexico are at their lowest level since the 1970s and U.S. companies no longer have to grapple with unrealistically low quotas to bring in skilled foreigners.
But this is clearly just a lull. With Obama nudging immigration back on the nation’s agenda, the need for overhauling the current policy is as obvious as ever.
A report published today by the Council on Foreign Relations makes a convincing case that America’s immigration laws have become a competitive liability. The inflexibility of border and immigration rules threatens to hamper U.S. growth once the economy crawls back from recession.
As the United States has tightened its rules post-9/11, rival nations have been taking full advantage — nabbing more of the world’s most highly desirable workers. “The US needs to worry as much about attracting good immigrants as keeping the bad ones out,” says the report, which was headed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Clinton White House chief of staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty.
America’s current cap on skilled immigration is appropriate only for the deepest recession. Since the September 2001 attacks, the United States has halved the number of H-1B visas available to just 85,000. As recently as 2007 they tended to sell out faster than U2 concerts. Even Google found they could get only half the visas the company asked for in 2008.
Frustration with the H-1B cap appears to have been behind Microsoft’s decision to establish a research center across the border in Vancouver in 2007 rather than expanding in Washington state.
After years of ranting from anti-immigration zealots like CNN’s Lou Dobbs, few Americans see the upside to letting in foreign workers. Yet many of America’s corporate giants — including Google Inc , Intel Corp and eBay were all built by recent immigrants. Talented immigrants also produce nearly a quarter of U.S. patents, twice their share of the population, the Council report says.
Immigrants and foreign students account for more than half the scientific researchers in the United States and in 2006 received 65 percent of computer science PhDs. Taking such people for granted or abusing them will eventually backfire.
America now has a window of opportunity to put things right before demand for skilled labor picks up. To keep up with other industrial nations it will need to move fast.
The European Union is working on a “blue card” that will give talented foreigners the right to work in any member country. Canada now has a points system that identifies foreign workers likely to make the greatest economic contribution. Australia, New Zealand and Britain have followed Canada’s lead. Unlike the United States, they have not put a ceiling on the number of workers that can be admitted under these systems.
China and South Korea too are becoming more interested in attracting immigrants, the Council on Foreign Relations says. The Obama administration, while making some positive noises, has not yet responded to the challenge. Despite modest efforts to trim the unnecessarily time-consuming background checks on foreign scientists and engineers, he has yet to lay out a vision on high-skilled immigration.
After decades of taking its pick of the world’s best talent, the United States has become complacent. The country still boasts most of the world’s finest universities, innovative companies and a most appealing culture. But America will face ever steeper competition for the brightest and the best. A more welcoming immigration policy is vital if America wants to stay on top.
(Editing by Martin Langfield)

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  • About Christopher

    "I am a columnist at Thomson Reuters focusing on the energy industry and hedge funds. Prior to this I worked at Bloomberg and the Financial Times."
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