Brookings Study: Immigration and “Brain Gain”

Even amidst the steamy bloviation of our national immigration debate – which at times seems more concerned with partisan advantage than with problem solving – there are cool-headed and serious-minded policy analysts who continue crunching the numbers and tracking the economics of immigration in a way that ultimately is more useful than all of that rhetorical heavy weather. At least for now, the national conversation seems to have moved past the idea of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), after three consecutive Congresses failed to find common ground sufficient to enact the necessary reforms. In this atmosphere, one has to give credit to the economists, demographers, and political scientists at the Brookings Institution for staying focused on the need for – and particularly the benefits of – CIR.

A new policy brief from the Brookings Institution states flatly that, “In the long term, the nation needs comprehensive immigration reform,” while in the short term, policymakers should focus their legislative efforts on immigration reforms that will increase the nation’s “brain gain” by “creating new jobs and producing economic benefits – to produce tangible and achievable improvements in our immigration system.” (See Creating a ‘Brain Gain’ for U.S. Employers: The Role of Immigration, by Darrell M. West, The Brookings Institution, Jan.2011.)

In broad outlines, the Brookings policy paper calls for a fundamental “rebalancing” of our immigration system, away from the objectives of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which “made family unification its overarching goal,” toward a system carefully calibrated to respond more quickly – and efficiently – to the evolving needs of a modern, technology-driven economy. The paper begins with some compelling statistics:

  • immigrants comprise ten percent of the U.S. population, and make a huge contribution to the national economy, especially in biotech and other high-tech fields
  • immigrants are over-represented in the ranks of high-tech business start-ups in the U.S.: more than 25% of all high-tech companies started between 1995 and 2005 had a foreign-born founder, and foreign-born owners were behind more than 50% of the high-tech companies started in Silicon Valley
  • companies founded by immigrants had $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers in 2005
  • the productivity of immigrant workers boosts U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by about $37 million per year
  • according to economists, immigration has boosted the wages of 90 percent of native-born Americans who have at least a high-school diploma

The study also points out that a disproportionate share of U.S. patent filings are made by foreign-born individuals – often people who studied here – and that a third of all U.S. Nobel prize winners in medicine and physiology were foreign-born. The conclusion? “Far from ‘crowding out’ native-born workers and depressing their wages, well-educated, entrepreneurial immigrants do much to create and support employment for Americans.” Moreover, the Brookings study argues that U.S. employers need vastly more well-trained workers, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math – the STEM fields – to compete with companies overseas, at a time when the U.S. is losing its edge in patent filings – a key measure of technological innovation.

The study then turns to the question of what to do about this. Among other things, its key proposals would:

  • grant automatic green cards to foreign grads of American science and technology programs
  • increase the number of visas for highly-skilled workers to 195,000 per year
  • set immigration levels to reflect current workforce and economic conditions in the U.S., so that labor market needs are met, even while American jobs and wages are protected, to “dampen public concerns about employment losses during lean economic times”
  • expand utilization of the O-1 “genius” visa for exceptionally talented individuals, along with the EB5 investor visa program
  • modernize our visa system infrastructure to increase efficiency and reduce the possibility of fraud

In a nutshell, the Brookings study calls for immigration law to be a tool of our economic strategy, one in which a prospective immigrant’s job skills would take precedence over his or her family ties. Clearly, family ties will continue to matter, as they must. The real test of such a policy is how well it balances these competing interests. This paper is well worth reading and considering carefully. One hopes our friends in the House and Senate will bend their brains to the task.

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.