It’s time for the U.S. to embrace a talent-based immigration system
Washington’s inaction on a much-needed immigration overhaul has reached alarming levels. President Barack Obama’s executive order to help those who came to the United States as children is trapped in legal limbo. The nascent 2016 presidential campaign, meanwhile, has only further polarized the discussion.
Yet a high-functioning immigration system has never been more important to America’s economic future. Immigrants are a key component in driving the U.S. economy.
Immigrants, for example, are nearly twice as likely as their native-born counterparts to start businesses, and the average earnings of immigrant workers with a college degree or better exceeds the average earnings of native-born Americans with at least a college degree. Immigrants with college and graduate degrees now represent 6 percent of the U.S. labor force, but their earnings represent 9 percent of all combined wages in the United States, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.
Given these realities, federal policymakers must build an immigration policy that recruits the foreign-born talent that the nation — and many U.S. employers — need. The demand for skilled workers is particularly acute in fields such as advanced manufacturing, healthcare, computer technology and skilled trades, that require more than a high-school degree.
Other countries have already focused on this. In the late 1960s, Canada led the way with a point system that gave preference based on an immigrant’s skills, work experience, language proficiency and other factors key to employability. Other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, followed suit.
Under such a system, factors such as education, age, language and experience are weighted differently, so people applying to immigrate receive a different number of points for each category. In Canada, for example, a PhD is worth 25 points, while a year of work experience is worth 15 points. In many cases, applicants must hit a minimum-point threshold to qualify for immigration.
In recent decades, immigration systems in many countries have developed even more sophisticated screening tactics. They can count not just immigrants’ qualifications but also employer demands — and give preference to immigrants who already have job offers.
This isn’t a perfect model, but it could at least serve as motivation for Washington. In Australia, for example, immigrants make up more than 25 percent of the workforce, and the nation has expanded the percentage of its population that’s employed or looking for work by 2 percentage points over the past decade because of this influx, which is further evidence that immigration drives economic growth.
Meanwhile, the complicated and burdensome U.S. immigration system suffers from a slowness and inefficiency that has made the country a less appealing place for foreign talent than nations with more clear-cut immigration protocols.
With its HiB visa program, Washington does provide an outlet for employers to recruit talented workers in specialized fields such as technology. But those visas have a limited time period of three years and can be renewed only once. There is also a long waiting list of workers eager to make the complicated transition to permanent resident status. What’s really needed is a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system to put talent squarely at the center.
The trend of U.S. businesses founded by immigrants, as Vivek Wadhwa points out in his recent book The Immigrant Exodus, has had a major reversal. After intensifying since the 1960s, it is now slowing down because many immigrants are choosing to take their entrepreneurial ideas back home or elsewhere. Some don’t even try to come to the United States.
The percentage of Silicon Valley companies started by Chinese and Indian immigrants, for example, declined from 52 percent in 2005 to 44 percent in 2011, while the percentage of immigrant-founded companies nationwide slipped from 25 percent to 24 percent, in part due to this effect. Without action to address it, the decline will is expected to only continue.
A points-inspired policy also has the potential to gain traction in the United States with broad-based support. A 2013 bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate but failed to get through the House of Representatives included a version of the point concept – some “merit-based” visas – though it was a minor component of the overall package.
To be clear, the United States wills likely still fall short if Washington focuses on a points-based system that draws immigrants with the jobs and requisite skills to boost our economy. It’s also critical to ensure that U.S. immigrants have the skills and credentials they need to attain today’s jobs, particularly because 65 percent of all U.S. jobs will require education beyond high school by the end of the decade, with growth projected for workers such as computer-support specialists, engineers, code developers, environmental scientist technicians, and other knowledge- and skill-based jobs.
The lessons from the flood of U.S. immigrants in the early 1900s highlight why this is critical. That wave of immigrants, who were largely from Europe, still failed to move from low-skilled jobs into the middle class until after World War II, when government policies, including the GI. Bill and Washington’s response to the Cold War, made access to higher education a top priority.
Americans need to change the way they think about immigration. Washington has to shift from viewing immigration as a problem to be dealt with to a tool that can address the nation’s talent needs in the 21st century. Americans must learn some lessons from other countries that have focused on cultivating talent through a points-based system. Let’s hope that can translate into action before it’s too late.