We lose when graduates are told to hit the road
John Chen has served as chairman, chief executive officer and president of Sybase, Inc. since 1998. All views are his own.
As I watched the news showing President Obama reaching out to University of Notre Dame graduates eager to shake his hand, I was impressed by the coalition of colors and nationalities in the faces all round the President that says much good about the United States. I also wondered who, among those shaking President Obama’s hand, will be told by an immigration official next week, ”Congratulations, graduate. Now hit the road, leave the U.S., go home!”
When that happens, if it hasn’t already happened to thousands of graduates across the country, the U.S. will be the loser.
The fact is that at commencement time, foreign science and engineering graduates from U.S. universities are itching to stay in America, especially at this time, and put their energy into the most valuable work. This would eventually help us recover economically and go on to thrive as an innovative world trading powerhouse.
Instead, they’ll be told we don’t want their intelligence and their problem-solving skills, or their innovative or entrepreneurial abilities. They’re told to just go back to where they came from — go back to India, to China, to Brazil, to Russia, and to all the other places that we compete with for wealth around the world.
These aren’t queue-jumping immigrants, or illegals trying to outwit border guards. They’re professionals, some with doctorates or masters’ degrees, who observe the rules. U.S. companies want to employ them. Unfortunately, they get lumped in with the general, anti-immigrant bias that cycles through Congress at times like these. and mocks the legal immigration system.
These foreign talent wanted to utilized our H1-B program that allows U.S. companies to hire a limited number of highly skilled foreign workers for the short-term or as a first step to a green card or permanent residence. Every April 1, U.S. corporations—from financial to high-tech firms—file petitions to hire these individuals under the H1-B terms.
We absolutely need H1-B immigrants for what they bring to our economy. I work in the Silicon Valley and the presence of foreign-born entrepreneurs has undeniably been a catalyst for taking the technology industry to a new level. Google founder Sergey Brin is from Russia, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang from Taiwan, and Intel co-founder Andy Grove from Hungary.
More than 50 percent of high-tech workers in Silicon Valley are foreign born, according to the Silicon Valley Index, an industry publication. Many of these immigrants go on to become entrepreneurs. In the 10 years to 2005, more than half of new tech companies had foreign-born founders.
The National Foundation for American Policy keeps estimates showing that for each H1-B visa, U.S. corporations hire five additional workers. This is not taking jobs from Americans, which is what we hear from labor unions. We’re actually creating jobs by bringing bright people into this country.
High-tech companies know this, of course, and we gained valuable support in early May when Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, told the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress: “I know it’s not very popular to say, but our immigration laws discriminate pretty heavily against talented scientists and engineers from other countries. If you allow more people with high-tech skills to come here, you’d get more innovation and more growth,” Bernanke said.
Not only do we lose in our domestic economy by turning away this huge resource of talent, but we lose in another perhaps even more significant way. Tighter rules and continuing traces of the 9/11 worries about foreigners distort the smart power of our foreign policy that we can use internationally. Reasoned persuasion is a key ingredient of smart power, together with trade deals, foreign aid, diplomacy and cultural influences such as movies and music. We need to boost the persuasiveness of our case by being smarter about keeping talent educated at our great universities, often subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, at a time when we need it most.
By singling out work visa immigrants, we are setting a bad example internationally. That’s true also when we indulge in trade protectionism. You can be sure such activities will trigger a round of retaliation throughout the world. And look what damage we will do to ourselves.
We risk our foreign direct investments of $2.1 trillion. We risk the market access for more than 2,000 multinational corporations, whose parent companies in the U.S. make up a quarter of our private sector output. We put into jeopardy U.S.-owned foreign assets abroad totaling $18 trillion. Can we afford it?