Much of the debate over increasing legal immigration and work visas, such as the H-1B visa for highly skilled workers, has centered on the present benefits to the economy and technological development. But there is another long-run benefit that has been largely ignored: The children of highly skilled immigrants become exceptional Americans.
The children of immigrants dominated the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee. This year, eighth-grader Sukanya Roy spelled "periscii" and "cymotrichous" to take the title (not even my Microsoft Word spell check recognizes those words), becoming the fourth American of Indian descent to win the bee in a row, and the ninth to win it in the past 13 years.
Sukanya's parents are both immigrants from India. Sukanya's father, Abhi Roy, teaches marketing at the University of Scranton, and her mother Mousumi Roy is an independent mathematics scholar and former instructor at Johns Hopkins University. Both are highly skilled, competent, and trained individuals who have made America a wealthier place. And now their daughter is poised to do the same.
When asked about the value of winning the Spelling Bee, Abhi Roy was reported to say: "It taught her the value of hard work, setting goals and meeting challenges. It's not just about words. Those are the values that we're trying to teach her, and they're going to serve her later in life." If that doesn't sound like an American work ethic, I don't know what does.
Spelling bees aren't the only academic competitions where the children of highly skilled immigrants excel. Of the 40 finalists of the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search Competition, formerly known as the Westinghouse talent search or "Junior Nobel Prize," 28 have at least one immigrant parent.
Of those parents 24 originally came to the U.S. on H1-B visas, employer-sponsored work visa for highly skilled specialty workers, according to the National Foundation for American Policy. Eventually many earned an employer-sponsored green cards. (The other four came to the U.S. as refugees or as family-sponsored immigrants.)
These impressive results shouldn't be surprising. Highly skilled immigrants are exceedingly productive, even compared with the average American. According to the 2010 Census, Americans of Asian descent had a median household income of $74,797, well above the American median of $60,088. Notably, more than three-quarters of all H-1B visa recipients in 2008 were from Asia.
Even better, immigrants' contributions last for generations as their children thrive and make the U.S. a more productive place. Winning spelling bees and junior science competitions alone don't guarantee a wealthy and productive future for these children, but they demonstrate that they have the brains and work ethic to go far.
The late economist Julian Simon recognized that mankind is the ultimate resource. Our greatest asset is our ability to solve problems, innovate, and produce. America can add to that asset by attracting more people like Sukanya Roy's parents.
Immigrants come to the U.S. and become Americans. As Abhi Roy said in an interview, Sukanya's performance in the spelling bee "wasn't about winning; we want her to appreciate the language." Yet participating in such competitions also helps instill the values of perseverance and hard work.
As Sukanya Roy's story shows, the value of immigration extends beyond what immigrants produce during their lifetimes, to what their children and grandchildren can also produce. That bounty is high for all Americans, both immigrant and native-born.