Immigration Reform Can Jumpstart Economy


Jeffrey is a talented electrical engineering PhD student at CalTech. He already holds three patents. One of his inventions may cure glaucoma. It is a tiny electrical device that can be implanted behind the human eyeball. It works automatically, can wirelessly interact with medical software, and doesn’t require a battery. After graduation, Jeffrey plans on starting his own company to produce it and help the roughly four million Americans who suffer from glaucoma.

Sounds like the beginning of a typical American success story. But Jeffrey’s story is not as uplifting as it seems. That’s because the government might kick him out of the country. He is not a criminal; Jeffrey Lin’s only offense is that he is from Taiwan.

Jeffrey and hundreds of thousands of foreign students in similar situations will create many start-up firms, create jobs, and improve technology one way or another. They just might not do so in the United States. Our immigration laws may well force Jeffrey, his ideas, and his talent back to Taiwan or to another welcoming country like Canada.

Fortunately, reform might be just around the corner. A bill called the STAPLE Act is currently winding its way through Congress. It would remove the numerical cap on H-1B visas. It would also automatically approve employer-sponsored green cards for foreign PhD students who graduate from American universities in the sciences, technology, engineering, or mathematics (what education wonks call the STEM fields).

H-1B visas are employer-sponsored visas for highly skilled workers in specialty occupations. They run for three years and can be renewed once. Currently, there are only 20,000 H-1B spots for foreigners graduating from American universities. Actual demand is far higher. The STAPLE Act essentially raises the cap by exempting some petitioners from it.

The STAPLE act is hardly a comprehensive reform. But it would help a lot of people like Jeffrey who came to the U.S. for its top-notch education system, and would like to stay because of its relatively excellent entrepreneurial environment. As the U.S. economy struggles to recover, it could use as many Jeffrey Lins as it can get.

Under the current system, Jeffrey has a chance of eventually getting a green card. But it will probably take at least six years. And it could take many more after his graduation. Until then, he will live a life of uncertainty dominated by filling out forms for the federal government and enduring restrictions on where he can work and what he can do.

Starting a business under such scrutiny is out of the question. Legal immigrants routinely tell stories of accidentally making errors on immigration forms and then having to begin the process all over again. Why should Jeffrey bother to raise capital or hire workers for his company when he might be forced to drop it if he is deported? Why would he buy a home or start a family? America is the land of entrepreneurs. Yet this is how the law treats many of those entrepreneurs.

Nationwide, immigrants like Jeffrey earn well over half of all engineering PhDs. Forty percent of PhD scientists working in the U.S. and a third of Silicon Valley’s scientists and engineers are foreign born. They invent and create economic opportunities for themselves and Americans.

Jeffrey’s three patents are an enormous achievement. But he is hardly unique. 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. Immigrants are responsible for an outsized portion of today’s rapid technological advancements.

Technological development, entrepreneurship, and scientific discovery all suffer when highly skilled foreigners are forced to leave. America is one of the best places in the world to conduct scientific research. That is why so many Americans, many of them immigrants, win Nobel Prizes every year. One-quarter of the Americans who have won Nobel Prizes since 1901 (when Noble Prizes were first awarded) have been immigrants, even though immigrants comprise just one-eighth of the U.S. population.

America is a land of opportunity where immigrants can work hard and fulfill their dreams — when the law lets them. Without reforms like the ones in the STAPLE Act, immigrants like Jeffrey Lin will be barred from fulfilling their dreams. America would be a poorer country for that — something to think about in these tough economic times.