Immigrant Children Make their Mark in Science and Math

Here is another healthy dose of reality for the anti-immigrant extremists who think immigration – somehow – is ruining our country. Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the spate of recent studies showing the economic benefits of immigration. All of these studies have dealt with the significant positive impact of immigrant labor – that is, adult immigrants – on the strength and vitality of our economy.

In a brilliant column in last week’s New York Times, columnist Tom Friedman pointed to another key benefit of immigration, one that hasn’t received as much attention: immigrant children. (See: America’s Real Dream Team, by Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times Op-Ed, 21.Mar.2010) Friedman recently attended the awards dinner for the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search, a nationwide competition that “identifies and honors the top math and science high school students in America, based on their solution to scientific problems.” He was struck by the overwhelming number of the finalists who came from immigrant families – mostly from Asia and, in particular, from India and China.

The article bears reading in its entirety, but the crux of it is this:

 “Indeed, if you need any more convincing about the virtues of immigration, just come to the Intel science finals. I am a pro-immigration fanatic. I think keeping a constant flow of legal immigrants into our country – whether they wear blue collars or lab coats – is the key to keeping us ahead of China. Because when you mix all of these energetic, high-aspiring people with a democratic system and free markets, magic happens. If we hope to keep that magic, we need immigration reform that guarantees that we will always attract and retain, in an orderly fashion, the world’s first-round aspirational and intellectual draft choices.”

As Friedman points out, the “wired world” has turned just about everything into a commodity; ideas can be transformed into reality through a complex web of design and production that can be outsourced in a competitive worldwide marketplace. What can’t be outsourced is imagination, Friedman argues, a quality these gifted young Intel Award finalists have by the planeload. For instance: a 17-year-old from California, Namrata Anand, told Friedman about her use of spectral analysis to study the “chemical enrichment history” of the Andromeda Galaxy. Another student from New Mexico, Erika DeBenedictis, won the overall prize – $100,000 – “for developing a software navigation system that would enable spacecraft to more efficiently ‘travel through the solar system.'”

In recent years, pundits and policy wonks have wondered aloud about American economic competitiveness, and how soon we will be left in the dust by China, India, and Brazil, in the never-ending race for technological dominance. A generation of educators and labor economists has wrung their hands about the nagging question, “What can we train U.S. students to do that can’t be done more cheaply somewhere else?” Some of this handwringing is helpful, calling attention to the need to focus more of our national resources on education in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math – and highlighting the need for immigration reform, to make it easier to hire STEM graduates from overseas when the domestic supply is insufficient. This is not an “either-or” proposition, but a “both-and.” For the foreseeable future, the American labor market will demand more STEM grads than it can produce, and a functioning immigration system is the best way to ensure that our economy can grow. There are scores of immigrant children with U.S. degrees who cannot work in their fields because they lack legal status. The fact that the languishing legislation that can fix this situation is called the DREAM Act is not likely merely coincidentally similar to the title of Mr. Friedman’s article.

As his article makes clear, immigration can be a wonderful two-for-one; immigrant workers and their families enrich our national talent pool, bringing brains, creativity and a willingness to work hard. To have such a high proportion of Intel Science Award finalists in their ranks, the immigrants and their families must be doing something right. It would be worth our while to figure out what it is, and how to make it work for all American students. Helping all American students learn to imagine, to dream – to innovate and solve problems – will keep us ahead of the pack for a long time to come. As Tom Friedman summed it up, our future is in good hands, as long as we don’t shut our doors.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.