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Closed Doors Make Us Poorer

Author: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow
September 29, 2008
Forbes Online

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Are America’s borders tight enough yet? Not nearly, judging from most of the political rhetoric. Yet just-released Census data shows that immigration to the U.S. plummeted last year, falling from an average of one million newcomers annually since 2000 to just over 500,000. Immigration from Asia fell particularly sharply.

While most of the decline is likely a result of the weakening economy, the numbers are the latest sign that in our determination to seal the borders against terrorists and illegal immigrants, the U.S. is inadvertently driving away some of the very people that have long been crucial to its economic success.

There is no question that our economy needs immigrants. Nearly half of this country’s science and engineering Ph.Ds are foreign-born, most of whom came to the U.S. to study at top-flight universities that remain the envy of the world. Those who stayed here now occupy many of the senior research jobs at American multinationals. Others have started their own companies—some 40% of U.S. high-tech start-ups were launched by immigrants.

Attracting the best foreigners, however, has become much, much harder. The complaints take many forms. The most common is that the U.S. cap on visas for highly-skilled foreign workers, known as H-1Bs, is far too low. Lifting the restrictions has become caught up in the messy politics of immigration reform, so each spring we now have a mad scramble as companies try to win some of the coveted 85,000 visas that are granted each year.

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