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Importing America's Future

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. The views expressed are his own.