NEW YORK – It’s hard to believe passionately in an issue that almost nobody cares about, and when those that do care usually disagree with you. But life is hard, so here I am: a passionate believer in letting more high-skilled workers immigrate to the United States.
There’s really no natural constituency for high-skilled immigration. The potential immigrants themselves aren’t in the country yet. High-skilled Americans are afraid that high-skilled immigrants will take their jobs and depress wages (though the evidence disputes this). And, of course, low-skilled Americans don’t even have the issue on their radar.
The closest thing to a constituency for high-skilled immigration is Silicon Valley, because tech companies naturally want plentiful, cheap high-skilled employees. And Silicon Valley has done an admirable job of lobbying for increasing the number of H-1B visas, even if it lost the fight this time around.
The problem is that H-1B holders aren’t actually immigrants — they’re guest workers. H-1B allows workers to have so-called dual intent — that is, they won’t be kicked out of the country if someone overhears them saying they would like to become a U.S. citizen. But H1-B holders are at a large disadvantage with respect to permanent residents with green cards or citizens when it comes to job mobility and negotiating leverage with their employers.
The H-1B program isn’t indentured servitude (as its critics allege), but it isn’t immigration either.
What about the political parties? Some people have suggested that the Democratic Party is holding high-skilled immigration policy hostage, demanding a deal on illegal immigration as part of the package. Vox recently suggested the exact opposite — that Republicans might be willing to cut a deal on high-skilled immigration, but only in exchange for a crackdown on undocumented workers. Either way, don’t expect the parties to push the issue much.
So who does that leave in support of high-skilled immigration? A bunch of random libertarian oddballs and economics bloggers, such as Adam Ozimek and Vivek Wadhwa. Those guys have their hearts in the right place, but you will pardon me if I say I’m not optimistic about their chances of getting legislation passed. High-skilled immigration seems destined to remain a political football.
With no natural allies, the potential entrepreneurs and inventors who might boost our economy are left out in the cold. Security agencies treat them like criminals.
And heedless bureaucracies, seemingly running on autopilot, randomly come up with new ways to keep them out of the country. It’s shameful, but no one is standing up and trying to stop it.
Essentially, I’m fighting for a lost cause here. But ever since I read “Don Quixote” during in-school suspension for spitting in a bully’s face in the seventh grade, I’ve been a fan of lost causes, so once more unto the breach.
The U.S. needs high-skilled immigrants. They represent one of the last big juicy pieces of low-hanging fruit out there for the taking. They start lots of companies, which give people jobs. They power most of our highest-value-added industries.
They don’t compete with working-class Americans; they employ working-class Americans, and their demand for local goods and services gives income to working-class Americans.
The main arguments against high-skilled immigration are wrong. Brain drain is less important than brain gain — immigrants to the U.S. end up helping their source countries over the long run. Nor is a skills shortage a necessary condition for bringing in high-skilled immigrants.
Some even see bigotry in the call for high-skilled immigration — what, are we trying to create some kind of high-IQ utopia here? Why is a high-skilled immigrant any more desirable than a low-skilled immigrant?
Well, I support low-skilled immigration too! But low-skilled immigration is easy to get, since the U.S. has high wages for manual labor, relative to most counties. High-skilled immigration, on the other hand, requires more active recruitment. Also, there’s the possibility that low-skilled immigration pushes down the wages of working-class and poor Americans; high-skilled immigration, in contrast, will boost the wages of low-skilled Americans.
In an ideal world, what would we be doing to increase high-skilled immigration? By far the most important thing is to increase the number of green cards — not H-1Bs — and to base the new crop of green cards on skills instead of family reunification.
The idea of stapling a green card to the diplomas of foreigners who study in the U.S. is a good one, and something like this should be made a reality. Beyond that, we should increase the number of entrepreneurship visas, boost the number of H-1Bs, and reform the H-1B visa to make workers less tethered to specific employers. But green cards are really the key.
By keeping out high-skilled immigrants, the U.S. government is like a quarterback running the wrong way and scoring a touchdown against its own team. We need to stop doing that, and we need to stop now.
Noah Smith, an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, is a Bloomberg View contributor.
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