In a struggling economy, we need to look wherever we can for job creators and engines for growth. I believe one of the biggest opportunities is through immigration reform. This country was built on immigrants, and their entrepreneurial spirit set the stage for the small businesses and big businesses of today. I had the opportunity to interview Alex Nowrasteh, the senior immigration analyst at the Cato Institute, about this very important subject.
FRAN TARKENTON: I think I read, and you can correct me, that 70 percent of the engineering graduates in this country, that are so important to job growth, come from other countries. And it’s hard for these people to stay here, and we educate them and then lose them back to India, back to China, back to wherever they’re from. Is that an accurate statement or not?
ALEX NOWRASTEH: It’s accurate, but it’s not only for engineers. Some 40 percent of all science graduates with a PhD in the physical sciences—biology, physics, these types of fields—are also foreign born. So they come here and it’s easier for them to get their green card once they come here, but for a lot of them it’s still difficult to near impossible. So they have to go to their home countries after they’re done here getting their education in the United States. We have to remember, foreigners who come to the US to get their education are usually the top of the top of their home countries. And the US has the best universities in the world, especially for research. Everybody wants to come here to do research, and then they want to stay in this country when they’re done. The problem is the federal government just doesn’t have the process to allow most of them to stay.
FRAN: I know people are scared to death that if we bring these people in, if we open the doors for these bright, young, smart people, people worry that they’re going to take jobs away from ordinary Americans. That’s not the case here, is it?
ALEX: That’s not the case at all. These people coming here, highly skilled immigrants, are not like most Americans. Most Americans are in the middle of the skill spectrum. They have a couple years of college, or a college degree, but they’re not PhD scientists and they aren’t low-skilled laborers, either. What these high-skilled immigrants do is they come into a part of the labor market where there aren’t very many Americans to begin with, and then they fill these very important niche jobs. And they create jobs in those markets. Just to give one example, there’s a firm that has a division in Houston called GWMA, a waste disposal unit firm that works in the oil and gas industries. They’re right now ready to hire 200-300 Americans, if only the federal government will approve visas for 6 foreign engineers to train them how to dispose of waste. So we have a federal government bureaucracy saying that this American company can’t hire 6 foreign workers, and as a result, they can’t hire 200-300 Americans.
FRAN: I assume this problem was there while Republicans were in office, the Bush administration. We must not have fixed it, because we must have the same policies under the Obama administration. Is there any movement, anybody talking about legal immigration reform?
ALEX: It’s even worse than it was under Bush, because Obama in 2010 signed a law that put more fees on firms in the United States that hire a certain percentage of workers from India. It was designed to punish Indian firms that operate in the US. For instance, last year there were 25,000 workplace inspections for firms that use H1B visas, which are the high skilled worker visas. Now, a workplace inspection is usually a very disruptive event. It usually takes at least half a day of stopping business and stopping that worker from working to figure out whether their paperwork is correct. So Obama’s actually done more to make the process worse under his administration; despite all his fancy language about trying to help immigration, he’s done the opposite.
In terms of movement, there are a few people who are talking about it, but as far as any legislation that is going to go forward, the only piece that I’ve heard about is by Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona. He has a proposal called the STAPLE Act, which would basically remove quotas for immigrants who went to American schools and got their PhDs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. So that’s the only real piece of legislation that is at least being considered in Congress right now.
FRAN: I want someone to say, you want to produce jobs, we have a terrible unemployment problem, it’s getting worse by the day, and we don’t even speak about how we’re going to really provide more jobs and knock the red tape out and keep these smart people. That’s what America has been built on. Steve Jobs’ father was Syrian. Sergey Brin of Google is. . .
ALEX: Soviet Union.
FRAN: And he’s Google, and it goes on and on. That’s the strength of America. We bring in the brightest, strongest from all over the world, historically, to go out and drive jobs and drive innovation and creativity, and now we’ve just stopped it.
ALEX: That is a perfect way to describe it. If a company can’t import the workers it needs to work here, they’re going to go abroad to where the talent is. That’s just a fundamental fact that we have to reconcile with. We see it inside the United States. Firms are leaving places like California because there are too many regulations, too many taxes, these types of things. They go over borders to other states. The same thing happens internationally. We have to recognize that firms want to be here in the United States. It’s a good place to be. There’s capital, there’s land, there’s money you can lend, there’s a stable financial system, and as much as we complain about politics it’s more stable here than in other countries. But the problem is that they just don’t have the skilled workers here that they need to really expand.
Bill Gates has been talking about H1Bs and high skilled workers for years, and Microsoft a couple years ago opened up a campus right across the border in Vancouver, Canada, to do research for Microsoft. And a lot of the people they employed were former H1B workers and people who couldn’t get a green card to come to the United States. Canada has better policies.
Just to give you an example, Silicon Valley is one of the few areas in the United States that’s doing okay economically. Over the last 10 years, 52 percent of all the startups in Silicon Valley have been started by immigrants, by foreign-born people. 52 percent!
What’s even more remarkable is half of those companies were started by Indians, who came to the United States. And Indians dominate the high skilled worker market in this country. Right now, you have three big countries in Asia who are sending us immigrants: China, the Philippines, and India. And all of them are chock full of entrepreneurs, of intelligent, hard-working, and (by the way) English-speaking people who want to come here, and they want to start firms.
FRAN: Our private sector . . . it’s struggling, but our private sector is pumping. We’re innovative, creative, and we’re doing it in a terrible environment that’s not a pro-business environment. Just think, if we could address the fundamental things, one of them legal immigration, we could just blow the doors off the building. We could provide millions of jobs. We could turn this into a bull market. It would be unbelievable.
ALEX: All the government needs to do is get off the backs of businesses, off the backs of consumers, off the backs of entrepreneurs, and let Americans be free and do what they naturally want to do. Mainly just through building a better economy, a more efficient economy. The centerpiece of that is the freedom of businesses to choose who they want to hire, no matter where those people are from. Nothing is more fundamental to a business than the talent and people you have there. Nothing.
FRAN: One thing that I know, Fran Tarkenton never could win without great teammates. You win with great talent. The education system, as you well know, ranks 23rd in the world. We’re not producing as many engineers and mathematicians and scientists as we need to. We’ve got a vacuum there. We’re spending more than anybody in the world, but we’re not getting that. That’s why it’s even more important that we have legal immigration reform.
ALEX: Just to give you an example of how few numbers of green cards are available per year for high skilled workers, there are only 140,000 available each year. That’s for a country with 310 million people in it, with the largest economy in the world. And we only allow 140,000 skilled immigrants to come into this country a year on a permanent basis. That’s it.
How many times a day do you use Google? I use it at least 25, 30, 50 times a day—easy! Every time I use it, it makes my life easier. It saves me time, it brings me the information I want easier. In part I can thank Sergey Brin for that, the co-founder of Google, who was born in the Soviet Union, whose parents were able to leave in the 70s and bring him with them because they were Jewish and they wanted a better life for themselves and their family. His dad was a mathematician, and Sergey Brin came here and got his education in computer science, and started a firm with another American. Now, Google is a verb! It’s such an integral part of our lives. We can’t just count the jobs he created, because that doesn’t cover the value he created for us. He made our lives so much better. We don’t want people to come in because they might take a job every once in a while? Well, the perfect counterexample to that is, yeah, but if we don’t let them in we might miss out on Google. How many Googles have we missed out on so far?