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To 'out-innovate,' we must let more immigrants in

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President Barack Obama is calling for Americans to focus on making smarter and more innovative products than anyone else or risk falling behind.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

President Obama said Tuesday night that he is prepared to "work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows." He also said it is time for this country to "stop expelling talented, responsible young people . . .who could be further enriching this nation."

What was missing from his State of the Union address, however, was this key fact: The only way the nation can meet Obama's call to "win the future" is to bring in more high-skilled immigrants.

Until Washington gets past rhetoric on immigration reform, stops conflating border security with visa issues and addresses the need for an increase in the number of visas allotted to highly skilled immigrants, we will be competing with one hand tied behind our back.

We do indeed "need to out-innovate, out-educate and outbuild the rest of the world," as the president said, but a big part of the American way to do just that has been to use the skills of immigrants.

The United States issues far more patents - a primary measure of innovation - than any other country, but immigrants were responsible for about a quarter of them in recent years, according to studies by researchers at Harvard Business School and elsewhere.

At Intel, the world's largest maker of semiconductors, 40 percent of the patents are for work done by Chinese or Indian immigrants, the Council on Foreign Relations reported in 2009.

Immigrants create patents at twice the rate of native-born Americans because they disproportionately hold degrees in science and engineering, Marjolaine Gauthier-Loiselle and Jennifer Hunt concluded in a study published last year by the Center for Economic Research in London.

In 2006, foreign-born students received 40 percent of science and engineering PhDs and 65 percent of computer science doctorates at U.S. schools. The data imply that an increase of one percentage point in the share of immigrant college graduates in the population would increase patents per capita by 6 percent, the two researchers estimated.

This is because many of these students stay in the country to work. Of all the U.S. engineering and technology companies started between 1995 and 2005, 25 percent had at least one immigrant founder, according to a 2006 Duke University study. An additional 27 percent had a foreign-born chief executive or chief technology officer.

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers during the Bush administration, has written that admitting more highly skilled workers would promote still more entrepreneurship, innovation and productivity, which are the primary drivers to increase national wealth and per capita income.

Immigrants such as the Italian Enrico Fermi, the Hungarian Edward Teller, the Germans Hans Bethe and Albert Einstein, and the Pole Hyman Rickover were central in building our preeminence in nuclear power, physics and arms, for example. David Ho from Taiwan pioneered protease inhibitors against AIDS. Sergey Brin from Russia founded Google. The list goes on.

While some are busy arguing that foreigners are taking high-tech jobs from Americans - so says the AFL-CIO on the left and some Tea Party advocates on the right - researchers David Kerr of Harvard and David Lincoln of the University of Michigan found last year that the large presence of immigrants in high-tech fields stimulated business and actually created more jobs than they took away for native-born Americans.

There is no shame in all this. Skilled immigrants are attracted by our superior universities and American cultural openness.

What all this suggests is that Obama is shortchanging the country if he backs away from pushing needed immigration reform, which has included expanding the number of highly skilled immigrants. Meanwhile, nativists in the Republican Party, by making the country feel unwelcome to immigrants, pose an outright threat to future American greatness.

The current annual visa cap for most skilled foreign professionals is 85,000, which is too low. A congressional Republican study group has been quietly examining whether to lift the cap, but the group's head, Virginia Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, said the measure would be difficult to enact before stronger border security is in place.

Border security and skills have nothing to do with each other. Politically linking them may placate the nativists, but it also puts us on the road to national decline, which surely neither party wants.


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