New York Times: Immigrant Innovation Still Key to U.S. Economy

The race is run, the chips have fallen, and now official Washington can get back down to business – at least, once they’ve all slept off that exhausting campaign season. Though it’s a fool’s errand to predict how soon our lawmakers might finally turn their attention to immigration reform, this much we know: we can’t wait much longer, and pressure is building for a comprehensive national solution to our immigration mess. The shortage of foreign workers is being felt from the clean rooms of Silicon Valley to the onion fields of rural Georgia, and eventually the affected industries will join forces to demand legislative action.

In the meantime, let’s get back to basics: America is and remains a nation of immigrants, and we are vastly richer for the contributions of creative, hardworking people who have landed on our shores, who have worked here over the generations to build a better life.

If you still need convincing, take a look at the recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, by Thomas K. McCraw, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School. (See Innovative Immigrants, by Thomas K. McCraw, New York Times, 01.Nov.2012.) Foreign-born innovators and entrepreneurs have shaped our nation from the beginning, McCraw argues, and their imprint is visible even today.

American industry is one area that owes a healthy share of its success to immigrants, as McCraw points out:

“Immigrant innovators were pioneers in many other industries after the Civil War. Three examples were Andrew Carnegie (Scotland, steel), Joseph Pulitzer (Hungary, newspapers), and David Sarnoff (Russia, electronics). Each came to America young, poor, and full of energy.”

More recently, McCraw says, immigrant innovators have captained the leviathans of mass media, communications, and IT; in the golden age of Hollywood, many of the big studios were headed by immigrants. Fast forward to the internet era, and high-tech giants like Intel, eBay, Yahoo, and Sun Microsystems all owe their existence to smart, ambitious immigrant founders.

McCraw has a theory about why immigrant entrepreneurs have been able to contribute so much to their adopted country: they feel freer to innovate because they have a fresh perspective, not bound to traditional ways and established interests:

“Compared with the native-born, who have extended families and lifelong social and commercial relationships, immigrants without such ties – without businesses to inherit or family property to protect – are in some ways better prepared to play the innovator’s role. A hundred academic monographs could not prove that immigrants are more innovative than native-born Americans, because each spurs the other on. Innovations by the blended population were, and still are, integral to the economic growth of the United States.”

Like most people who have studied the issue, McCraw sees an urgent need for immigration policies that will help, not hinder, foreign-born innovators who want to stay here permanently. Without it, he says, the system “endangers our tradition of entrepreneurship, and it must be repaired – soon.” Well said, and well worth thinking about, now that Campaign 2012 is safely in the past.


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