Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The high skill side of the immigration debate

In today's radio Democratic presidential candidate debate, sponsored by NPR, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards outlined his opposition to vastly expanding the number of H1-B visas for skilled workers in the United States. Edwards made it clear that the focus of his administration would be to fill high skill jobs with American workers first and to better train American workers.

While improved education for Americans, especially in science and mathematics, is always important, Edward's policy fundamentally misses the point. The number of brilliant, talented workers being denied visas to work in the United States is astounding. Adding insult to injury, many of these workers have spent years studying in the U.S., many at some of this country's finest universities. These individuals have a deep affiliation with the United States, and want to stay here.

Furthermore, since many of our undergraduate and graduate programs are at least partially publically funded (even at public universities), many of these students were funded partially at American taxpayers' expense. Despite the fact that the United States has already invested in the growth and development of these inidivduals, it routinely denies them working visas.

The consequences of this shortsighted policy are already beginning to take shape. One of the reasons that the world financial center is shifting away from New York toward London and Singapore is that many of these workers go there when they are denied access to the U.S. job market. They take their productivity (and their tax dollars) to another economy.

High skill job growth is not a zero sum game. The more brilliant, talented people working in the United States, the more opportunities there will be for other high skill workers, both American-born and foreign-born. The only question is whether the United States wants these individuals to work to improve its society, or take their productivity elsewhere.

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