Jump-start U.S. growth through immigration
When people think of what to do to help the U.S. economic recovery, admitting more immigrants into America isn’t what usually comes to mind. But a new study by Arlene Holen, an economist and senior fellow with the Technology Policy Institute, could contribute to resolving the current economic crisis.
The study finds that letting in more highly-skilled immigrants would generate more tax revenue, and over time raise labor earnings and national income. (Click here for the study in PDF format.)
Coincidentally, this week the Wall Street Journal reported that bankers are quitting due to onerous conditions imposed by the federal government on banks receiving public funds. Yet the new economic stimulus bill specifically makes it harder for banks to hire foreign workers, thereby limiting the flow of talent to a troubled industry.
If Congress had not imposed a tight lid on green cards, according to Ms. Holen, America in 2008 might have had up to 300,000 more highly educated engineers and graduate students performing path breaking research. They would have added about $23 billion to GDP, and the federal government would have gained about $5 billion more in tax revenues.
Based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, Ms. Holen (who used to be associate director at CBO) said that if comprehensive immigration reform had been enacted in 2007 then GDP would have been $180 billion greater over the next decade, and federal revenues would have been higher by $40 billion.
A similar argument was voiced by Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and chair of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law in a speech on March 10. She said that “we need to jump start our growth through immigration.”
Ms. Lofgren explained that the billions of dollars allocated to scientific research in the 2009 economic stimulus bill cannot be effectively spent without more H-1B (temporary) visas for foreign scientists, “because all this spending needs people to do research.”
She said that comprehensive immigration reform, which was rejected by Congress in 2007, can pass this year if President Obama supports it.
To invoke a familiar truism, America’s immigration system is broken. Every year, the U.S. Center for Immigration Services issues only 65,000 H-1B temporary visas for skilled workers out of over 600,000 applications from employers.
A similar backlog exists for permanent residence visas sought by individuals both in America and abroad, with applications often close to ten times the number of “green cards” that may by law be issued. In 2006, more than 12,000 newly-arrived workers received green cards to work in the United States, and 53,000 temporary workers already in America were granted green cards.
For fiscal year 2009, the H-1B visa cap of 65,000 was reached in a few days. This is not to say H-1B visas have always fallen short of demand. During the 1990s, Congress temporarily raised the quota to 195,000, a number that did not exceed demand, but the quota reverted to 65,000 in 2004.
This quota represents a small fraction of the U.S. labor force of 154 million. Even if the quota were raised to 150,000 a year, that would still be less than one tenth of 1% of the labor force, hardly a source of the mass depicted by anti-immigration xenophobes.
By limiting visas, America is hurting itself, because the number and percentage of PhDs in science and engineering awarded to Americans and permanent residents have declined dramatically over the past decade. Fifty-eight percent of PhDs in physics are awarded to foreigners in 2007, compared with 48 percent a decade earlier. Foreigners earn 66 percent of PhDs in computer science and 53 percent of PhDs in chemistry.
Columbia University professor Amar Bhidé has shown in his new book “The Venturesome Economy” that it’s efficient for Americans to get advanced degrees in law and business rather than in science and math if they prefer these fields. However, we need to issue more immigrant visas so that we have enough scientists.
Issuing more green cards and H-1B visas can provide effective economic stimulus—and this can happen at little or no cost to Uncle Sam or working Americans.
You can reach Diana Furchtgott-Roth at email@example.com.