“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Inscription on the Statue of Liberty
Ezra Klein wrote what might be to some a provocative piece in the Business Section of the September 26th Washington Post. Immigration reform proponents on Capitol Hill seem unable to separate the baby from the bath water. Among his observations: “What shouldn't be politically difficult is forming a consensus around increasing highly skilled immigrants… Because of a 1965 law, our immigration system is based around family unification. More than 65 percent of visas are for purposes of bringing family members to the United States. Only 15 percent are for economic reasons. As Darrell West of the Brookings Institution writes in his book ‘Brain Gain,’ this means that immigrant families, rather than current policymakers, decide who enters the country...That's nuts. Our immigration policy should be primarily oriented around our national goals. And one goal is to have the world's most innovative and dynamic economy…
“Economists separate new workers into two categories: Those who ‘substitute’ for existing labor - we're both construction workers, and the boss can easily swap you out for me - and those who ‘complement’ existing labor - you're a construction engineer, and I'm a construction worker. Immigrants, more so than U.S.-born workers, tend to be in the second category, as the jobs you want to give to someone who doesn't speak English very well and doesn't have many skills are different from the jobs you give to people who are fluent and have more skills.” But Houston, and almost every other city in the United States, we’ve got a problem: we simply aren’t graduating enough scientists, engineers and mathematicians to design the future of the American workplace.
The fact that America’s generating only 60,000 to 70,000 PhD’s annually in mathematics, applied sciences and engineering falls drastically short of our internal needs has dire consequences for all Americans. As we have seen above, a new core focus on science and math needs to be a critical focus for our entire educational system, but until we start rolling out the high-end result of that pressure, the number of hard patents filed in the United States (vs. softer, business method patents that have limited underlying value) is dropping every year, while such patent applications are soaring in places like India and China. We risk losing the technology race that we have always led.
Immigration has been profoundly beneficial to our economic growth. If we just pulled the Asian-born immigrants out of this country, our telecommunications system would coast to a stop, our advancements in all levels of computer science and most forms of engineering would grind to crawl; advances in biotech and medicine would glide to a tiny fraction of current achievements. A January 4, 2007 Duke University study examined engineering and technology start-ups in the United States between 1995 and 2005. More than one in four of these companies were founded by immigrants (most from Asia, particularly India), creating approximately 450,000 jobs and $52 billion in sales in 2005 alone. We wouldn’t be the great nation we are, a technology leader, without them. And in a time of profound unemployment with entire industries being slammed in the face (economic excess may have taken Chrysler and GM into bankruptcy, but old thinking and old idea with a global technology shift played a huge role as well), we need invention and creativity to redesign what Americans will do for the next century.
Klein continues his obvious harangue: “Because when we have the best talent, we have the best innovations. That's how we landed Google, Intel and the atomic bomb. Immigrants are about twice as likely as native-born Americans to start a small business, and they're 30 percent more likely to apply for a patent…. But since 2001, we've gone from offering 195,000 high-skill visas to about 65,000 today. In fact, we let top students come for college or graduate school - and then we don't let them stay. ‘We should staple a green card to PhDs in science and technology,’ West says with a sigh. ‘They'd like to stay here!’”
The fabric of our lives is not a simple, “allow an immigrant and take away an American job”; not only do the right immigrants create new jobs, but even those at the bottom of the economic ladder may actually enhance both our productivity as well as our standard of living: “If you have lots of immigrant laborers willing to build roads, a firm can build more roads and has more need for native workers who can supervise the crews or do the technical work. The effect of all this - which has been demonstrated in multiple studies - is that immigrants raise wages for the average American… But that's only half of their benefit. ‘Living standards are a function of two things,’ says Michael Greenstone, director of the Hamilton Project [which is involved in immigration research and hosting conferences on the subject], ‘ They're a function of our wages and the prices of the goods we purchase.’ And immigrants reduce the prices of those goods. Patricia Cortes, an economist at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, found that immigrants lowered the prices in ‘immigrant-intensive industries’ such as housekeeping and gardening by about 10 percent. So our wages go up, and the prices of the things we want to buy go down.
“We should remember, though, that the average worker isn't every worker. A study by Harvard economists George Borjas and Lawrence Katzj found that although immigrants raised native wages overall, they slightly hurt the 8 percent of workers without a high school education. A subsequent study by [Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California at Davis] found that even unskilled workers saw a benefit from immigrants - but it was much smaller than that of highly skilled workers.” Klein. Americans, increasingly desperate for answers in harsh economic times, appear addicted to slogans and simplistic “one phrase” solutions to complex social and economic issues; life just does not work that way in a modern age. We need to learn to be realistic and practical again, focused on what’s best for all of us and not dependent on theories of life that have no realistic chance of providing us with the future we all desire.
I’m Peter Dekom, and sometimes I think we are going to “slogan” ourselves back into the Stone Age!