THE AVENUE DECEMBER 19, 2011
The idea that immigrants, especially those highly educated in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, can help our economy recover from the recession by creating jobs and contributing to our tax base has gained a lot of momentum. Places like Detroit, Dayton, and Cleveland are actively wooing immigrants to help stem population loss, revitalize neighborhoods, and spur entrepreneurship.
It’s happening at the federal level, too. A couple weeks ago, my colleagues blogged about a bill passed by the House that would change the way employment visas are allocated that should reduce the backlog for skilled workers seeking to stay and work in this country. The main beneficiaries would be immigrants from India and China who happen to be the most highly-educated immigrants. (As an aside, the bill would also change the way family-based visas are allocated, effectively benefitting immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines, but this aspect was not publicized, and the bill was tellingly named the “Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act,” not the “Fairness for Family-based Immigrants Act.”)
Last week, Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) announced his forthcoming sponsorship of the BRAIN Act --“Bringing and Retaining Accomplished Innovators for the Nation”-- that would allow immigrants who graduate from a U.S. school with a master’s or Ph.D. and land a job in a STEM field to obtain permanent residency. He argued that our current practice of educating these promising graduates and sending them back to their origin countries is akin to “equipping the other team” (read: India and China). Griffin would prefer to “starve our competitors” by keeping these highly educated immigrants--he referred to them as “innovators, job multipliers, and net donors”--in this country.
A new report seems to provide some data to back up the assertion that immigration, especially of the high-skilled variety, is good for our economy. Funded by the American Enterprise Institute and the Partnership for a New American Economy (a bi-partisan consortium of mayors and business leaders), economics professor Madeline Zavodny finds that, even during the tough economic times of the last few years, immigration on the whole has not hurt the job prospects of native-born Americans.
By analyzing whether states with higher concentrations of immigrant workers have higher or lower employment rates for natives, she finds no significant effect on the whole, but a boost from high-skilled immigrants (at least up until the recession hit in late 2007). Specifically, between 2000 and 2007, each additional 100 foreign-born workers with advanced degrees were correlated with an additional 44 jobs for U.S. natives, and if those 100 workers were in STEM fields, the number of additional jobs for natives went up to 262.
Reports like these help fuel congressional action on immigration. Everyone can agree that job creation is a good thing, especially in times like these, though not everyone agrees that “stapling a green card” to the diplomas of foreign-born STEM graduates of U.S. universities is the way to go. Nevertheless, the competition argument has gained traction among Republicans in Congress who were otherwise unwilling to entertain anything on immigration that wasn’t enforcement oriented.
Bills that make it easier for high-skilled immigrants to stay and work here could be another small step toward reforming our broken immigration system. But there is still a lot left to be done. Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform are hesitant to let too many of the “easy” parts be accomplished in a piecemeal fashion, lest the more contentious and difficult aspects--such as what to do with the 11 million people living here without legal status--never get properly addressed.