You’d be forgiven for missing the key sentence on immigration reform in President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night. After addressing border security and the pathway to citizenship that undocumented aliens might look forward to, Obama went on to say, “real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods and attract the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.” It was a good applause line. And we at VM applaud as well.
A number of reports have shown that despite their considerable contributions to the American economy, highly-trained immigrants holding valuable STEM degrees are finding it extremely difficult to work in America due to country-based immigration quotas. According to the FT, workers have reported waiting as long as eight years to receive permanent residency, and that annual caps on skilled immigrants are often hit only ten weeks into the year, making it nearly impossible for others to enter.
This is a serious problem as skilled immigrants contribute greatly to the economy. One study found that immigrants are responsible for three-quarters of patents from top universities, while the above FT article cites a study claiming that STEM immigrants each create 2.62 American jobs. And unlike their low-skilled counterparts, these immigrants are entering fields where demand for workers is high and so they don’t have the same negative effect on wages.
Lowering or removing the caps on high-skilled immigrants should be the first thing on the table for immigration reform. As we wrote last year, there might be a reasonable case for reviewing the levels of unskilled immigration from time to time, and certainly for blocking illegal migration. But when it comes to highly skilled and unusually talented people, we say let it rip.