Reforming US Immigration

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The US economy's long-term prospects are most seriously jeopardised, I believe, by the failure of its schools system and by a remarkably stupid immigration policy. The first is a complicated problem, not easy to solve. The second is a simple problem, and could be solved at a stroke if Congress only chose to do something about it. The difficulty on immigration, however, is convincing a doubtful electorate that a more intelligent policy makes sense.

Commentary like this piece by Darrell West of Brookings ought to help: "Seven Myths that Cloud the Immigration Debate". Top of my list would be this one:

Myth No. 4 -- The United States makes a special effort to attract scientists, engineers and technological experts. Right now, we set aside only 65,000 of America's nearly 1 million visas each year for high-skilled workers. This is well below the 195,000 high-skilled visas that the U.S. allowed from 1999 to 2004. One study found that 25% of all the technology and engineering businesses launched in the USA from 1995 to 2005 had a foreign-born founder. In Silicon Valley, that number was 52.4%.

That gives you some sense of the losses the policy is inflicting. The diminishing lead of the US in innovation is not a speculation about the future, it is a fact, and immigration policy is an important reason. I've been reading West's new book on the problem, "Brain Gain". ("I suggest that American citizens and policymakers need to reconceptualize immigration as a brain gain for the United States. The country needs to reduce illegal immigration and strengthen legal immigration in ways that draw top international talent...") I'll come back to the book in a later post. For the moment, I'll just recommend it  highly.

Here is another piece, an op-ed in the NYT, that might help to change a few minds: "Foreign Stimulus" by Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny.

[W]ork-based visas should become the norm in immigration, not the exception...  No other major Western economy gives such a low priority to employment-based immigration, and for good reason: these immigrants are the most skilled and least likely to be a burden on taxpayers.

Orrenius and Zavodny make several recommendations; among them, tying green cards to being in work rather than to working for a particular employer. Good idea. They also propose auctions for visas instead of rationing by queue.

Employers would bid highest for the most-valued workers, creating a selection mechanism that wouldn't rely on the judgment of bureaucrats or the paperwork skills of immigration lawyers.

I don't know about that. Compared with the present idiotic arrangements, this approach does have several advantages, as the authors point out. But once you derive a revenue stream from barriers to skilled immigration, you give policymakers a new reason to keep them in place. That is the last thing they need.

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