Our Nobel Prize Winning Immigrants

Our Nobel Prize Winning Immigrants

October 09, 2009
Originally published in Real Clear Markets

Americans dominated the 2009 Nobel Prizes for the sciences. Eight of the nine winners were American citizens. What is even more striking is that five of those American winners are immigrants to the United States. Yet, in the immigration debate, the contribution of highly educated and skilled immigrants to American technology and science is often ignored.

That contribution cannot be overestimated. One quarter of American Nobel Prize winners since 1901 have been immigrants. Today, a third of all the scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley are immigrants or foreign-born. Furthermore, 40 percent of the Ph.D. scientists working in the U.S. are foreign-born. Unfortunately, our immigration laws ignore these facts.

The driver of economic growth in the modern world is knowledge, and scientific discoveries spill over into related fields to fuel further discoveries. Scientists working in research teams can quickly share insights with each other, allowing greater output. Scientists and engineers working closely together increase the speed and scope of their research. When this brain power is geographically concentrated, it boosts economic growth and technological development.

America's current immigration laws artificially limit our capacity for technological advancement. The engineers and Ph.D.s driving much of the technological innovation in Silicon Valley are overwhelmingly Indian, and a growing number of them are here illegally. According to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics, there are almost 300,000 illegal Indian immigrants in the U.S. Many of them arrived here on H-1B or student visas and have overstayed their legal residency in the hope of getting a green card.

Indian immigrant workers are generally highly skilled and enjoy high incomes. Average Indian-American households have an income 62 percent greater than the average. The skills, work ethic, and entrepreneurial spirit that make Indian immigrants such a successful group are remarkably constant throughout the community, regardless of legal status. Instead of making them jump through bureaucratic hoops, we should encourage them to live here peacefully and contribute to society.

Foreign graduate students also contribute to America's ongoing technological success. A 2005 World Bank study found that foreign graduate students working in the United States file an enormous number of patents. Additionally, a quarter of international patents filed from the U.S. in 2006 named a non-U.S. citizen working in the U.S. as the inventor or co-inventor. Many of those immigrants whom our immigration bureaucracy refuses to recognize are responsible for the rapid technological advancement of recent decades.

Ultimately, highly skilled immigrants benefit the American economy. Counting just the value of patents, scientific discoveries, and firms started by immigrants, it is clear that their arrival has paid off handsomely for the U.S. And rather than take jobs away from Americans, more people with wider skills and greater experience increase employment opportunities. The non-partisan National Foundation for American Policy reports that for every H-1B visa issued, U.S. technology firms increase their employment by five workers.  In that sense, every day that almost 300,000 Indian immigrants spend in legal limbo represents a gargantuan waste of creativity.

And that doesn't even count the millions of talented individuals from China, Europe, and elsewhere who would come here seeking greater opportunity if the law would only let them. The five immigrant Nobel Prize winners came from Britain, Canada, Australia, China, and India. The number of potential Nobel Prize winners who have lost their opportunity to do research in this country is unknown. What is known is that the U.S. government has kept out millions of the most inventive, brilliant, and entrepreneurial people in the world for no good reason.