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Importing America's Future

An immigration rally (Korea Resource Center/flickr)

An immigration rally (Korea Resource Center/flickr)

by Jamie Metzl

Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town, June 6, 2007

Although much of the debate about the immigration bill now being considered in Washington is focusing on what type of people America should to keep out, the real issue for our long-term security is not whom we should keep out, but whom we must bring in.

In the increasingly inter-connected global economy, America's competitive edge will only be maintained by our ability to engage the most effective and entrepreneurial workforce and establish the essential conditions for its success. As our country's education system continues to fall in global rankings, our immigration system will become an even more essential tool of national competitiveness.

The United States has a distinguished history of spurring innovation and economic growth through the targeted application of immigration policy. In the years before, during and after World War II, for example, the U.S. gave refuge to thousands of Jewish scientists from Europe who played a central role in laying the scientific foundation for America's technology-driven post-war economy. Today, America simply cannot maintain our competitive edge without using strategic immigration as a fundamental driver of American competitiveness.

Much has been made of India's and China's growing ability to educate the highly qualified scientists and engineers needed to drive those countries' growth well into the future, while America's numbers of science and technology graduates continue to dwindle. But the competitiveness of economies and societies in the 21st century will be measured less by how many students each graduates in strategic fields than by the overall skill set of each population. Although the United States probably cannot educate more scientists and engineers than China or India, we can and must use our immigration policy to actively seek the best, brightest, highest-educated and most motivated people from around the world through a much expanded H1-B visa program.

For almost two decades, one driver of skilled worker immigration has been the H1-B visa program that allows for highly skilled temporary workers in specialized occupations. Much of the growth of Silicon Valley and other U.S. technology centers can be directly attributed to highly skilled and motivated H1-B visa holders and other recent immigrants, most notably from India and China. (A Duke University study has found that 25% of American technology start-ups were founded by foreign-born entrepreneurs from 1995 to 2005; in addition, 26% of technology start-ups founded by immigrants had CEO's, presidents, founders, or lead researchers from India.)

The current level of 65,000 H1-B visas granted annually is hardly enough to fill our economy's need. Employers like Microsoft's Bill Gates have pushed for recruiting and retaining more foreign-born workers in information technology and other fields, as opposed to "driving away the world's best and brightest precisely when we need them most." The proposed legislation, expanding the H1-B visa base to 115,000 visas per year with the potential to go to 180,000 is a step in the right direction, but far more needs to be done with these visas and in other areas of U.S. immigration policy to better leverage the magnetic pull of our society—our prosperity, tolerance, rule of law, diversity, democratic system, etc.—to actively build a population that can further enhance America's competitiveness.

There is no reason that any graduate in the top twenty percent of his or her class from India's world-renowned Indian Institutes for Technology (IITs) and other comparable institutions should not be fast-tracked for U.S. citizenship provided they meet other essential criteria and possess skills that match America's needs. Here again, the proposed bill's merit-based points system for immigration that takes educational levels, occupation, English proficiency and other criteria into account is a positive step—although the devil will be in the details of how the points are allocated.

To further facilitate this process, however, the President and Congress should also establish a national commission on strategic immigration and U.S. competitiveness to develop an action agenda for recruiting people with needed skills to come to the United States. Such a commission would bring together corporate, academic and other leaders to outline the types of skills we will need for the 21st century workplace. It would work towards a strategic immigration policy that complements other education initiatives and worker training programs to enhance our competitive edge in key sectors including science and technology—but by no means limited to these fields.

Immigration policy, of course, serves multiple critical purposes including reuniting families, providing safe haven for refugees, fostering diversity and keeping terrorists and other bad actors out. But alongside a just, compassionate, and fair humanitarian immigration policy, the United States must build a strategic immigration initiative that recruits those with needed skills and helps lay the foundation for an even more prosperous and successful future.

Jamie Metzl is the executive vice president of the Asia Society.