New Yorker: Rebalancing Immigration to Favor Skilled Workers

In case you missed it in the end-of-summer rush, James Surowiecki’s essay on immigration, in the August 27 issue of the New Yorker is well worth a look. [See: The Track-Star Economy, by James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, 27.Aug.2012.]  Surowiecki, who covers economics and finance for the New Yorker, makes a compelling case that we need to rebalance our immigration system to allow more highly-skilled immigrants to work in the United States.

Surowiecki observes that, just as the U.S. trained many of the top Olympic competitors from other countries – the very people the U.S. team faced at the London games – we continue to train top academic talent from overseas, only to have them leave for home, or greener pastures elsewhere, when a U.S. visa proves too difficult to come by. “These are well-educated, motivated workers who want to play for our side, he argues, “… yet we’re making it difficult for them to do so.”

Surowiecki takes aim at an outdated immigration system that continues to favor family reunification over economic necessity, leaving the number of employment-based permanent visas capped at 140,000 per year, the same level it was in 1990, despite the fact that the U.S. economy is now 60 percent larger. Other countries, he says, are happy to take in the many skilled workers who would like to work here, but can’t get a visa.

Our biggest immigration problem, Surowiecki argues, is in our heads: we mistakenly assume that immigration is a zero-sum game, that immigrants will simply displace American workers and further fuel unemployment here. Instead, we need to recognize that:

“Economies are not static, with a limited set of resources to go around. As the work of the economist Paul Romer has shown, economies grow faster when there is more innovation, and having more smart people in the workforce is a key driver of innovation. And the quickest, cheapest way to get more smart people is to make it easy for them to move here.”

In short, says Surowiecki, if we want more innovation, more entrepreneurship – more jobs – we need an immigration system that puts the needs of the marketplace in the driver’s seat. He argues crisply and cogently for making this happen, even in the teeth of the recession:

“Tough times have always lent themselves to nativist sentiments and closed-door policies. But in the case of highly-skilled immigrants these policies are a recipe for stagnation. The U.S. is excellent at importing cheap products from the rest of the world. Let’s try importing some human capital instead.”

Well said, and worth reading in its entirety.


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