Thursday, February 9, 2012

The High-Skilled: Immigration Policy #1

U.S. Immigration policy  is a combustible topic, so I'll just list five of my main beliefs up front.

  1. Allowing substantially higher immigration from high-skilled labor--in particular, by finding ways to let those who complete science and technology degrees or graduate programs in the United States remain in the country--should be a no-brainer. 
  2. Allowing higher levels of low-skilled immigration is admittedly a tougher call, although I would favor this as well. 
  3. When it comes to government budgets, immigration is an overall benefit to government budgets, but certain state and local governments that suffer losses.
  4. Increasing enforcement at the border may have reached diminishing returns--that is, high costs for relatively little benefit in limiting enforcement. However,  but other ways of enforcing immigration limits could be increased, like keeping better tabs on those with temporary visas and discouraging employers from hiring illegal immigrants. 
  5. Immigration is a much smaller policy issue for the United States than it potentially could be for the world as a whole.

    For some additional background, see my post of July 29, 2011, Thoughts on Immigration. But here I take my text from the most recent issue of the Cato Journal, which is devoted to the subject "Is Immigration Good for America?" The essays go beyond my five points, to tackling issues like birthright citizenship and future U.S. demographic trends. There is reasonable support for my points 1-3 and 5, but some disagreement when it comes to enforcement issues. To avoid making this post of encyclopedic length, I'll divide it into five parts: one for each of my five themes.

    The U.S. higher education system is widely acknowledged as the best in the world, and especially at the graduate level, it attracts top-notch students from all over the world. We invite them in, we provide financial support for their education, we often connect them to industry--and then we make it hard for them to stay. In a world economy where future economic growth depends largely on science and technology, U.S. immigration policy essentially chases away tens of thousands of highly qualified workers each year. Whatever one thinks about reducing illegal immigration or overall immigration, this policy of chasing away the high-skilled is hugely counterproductive.

    Here is Gordon Hanson making the point in "Immigration and Economic Growth" (references omitted for readability):

    "Each year, U.S. universities conduct a global talent search for the brightest minds to admit to their graduate programs. Increasingly, foreign students occupy the top spots in the search. Data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates show that between 1960 and the late 2000s, the share of PhDs awarded to foreign students rose from one fifth to three fourths in mathematics, computer science, and engineering; from one fifth to three fifths in physical sciences; and from one fifth to one half in life sciences. U.S. university departments that have more foreign graduate students produce more academic publications and have their work cited more frequently. Once they graduate, U.S.-educated foreign workers patent at a significantly higher rate than U.S.-born workers. As a consequence, U.S. cities that attract these workers produce larger numbers of patents in electronics, machinery, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, and other technology-intensive products. Simply put, high-skilled immigration promotes innovation. An additional benefit is that high-skilled immigrants are likely to pay far more in taxes than they use in public services, generating a positive net contribution to government fiscal accounts. ...

    "Today, the difficulty is not in attracting top foreign students to America but in keeping here them after they graduate. High-skilled immigrants have three primary channels for obtaining permission to work in the United States. The H-1B visa, which targets highly trained professionals, permits holders to work in the United States for a period of three years. It is renewable once, with the annual number of visas capped at 65,000. Employer-sponsored green cards permit holders to live and work in the country indefinitely. The annual number of new visas is capped at 150,000. The third channel is a family-sponsored green card, which requires marrying a U.S. citizen (visas for which there is no cap) or having a close relative already in the country legally (visas for which are capped at 640,000). Because of the limited number of work-based visas, the family visa route remains the most common path to legal residence for skilled workers. Rosenzweig (2007) reports that in the early 2000s among immigrants who entered the United States on student visas and ultimately obtained green cards, 55 percent did so by marrying a U.S. citizen. To make it in America, foreign students not only need to be smart enough to get into a U.S. university. They also need to be proficient at dating."
    Hoping for proficiency in dating is not a well-conceived immigration policy. It used to be, not that long ago, that foreign graduate students from places like India or China or Brazil would remain in the U.S. after graduation in part because they didn't see attractive professional opportunities back in their home countries. Those days are behind us. The U.S. is highly attractive to footloose global talent--it just needs to make it straightforward for that talent to locate here.