Give Us Your Geniuses: Why Seeking Smart Immigrants Is a No-Brainer

The country's legacy of greatness was built on the backs of brilliant foreign-born workers. Today, the United States must admit more high-skilled immigrants.

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In 1939, four physicists wrote a letter to the president of the United States, alerting him to the possibility of nuclear weapons. The United States responded with the Manhattan Project. In short order, the new weapon produced by that project had made the United States the world's first true superpower since Genghis Khan's horsemen rode the plains of Central Asia seven hundred years before.

This true tale of American national greatness would be incomplete without a crucial fact: All four of the physicists who wrote that letter were born outside of the United States (three in Hungary, and one, Albert Einstein, in Germany). They were immigrants, as were many of the scientists who worked on the project itself. Born in countries where they faced persecution and limited opportunity, these brilliant individuals chose America as their home -- not the Soviet Union, not Great Britain, not Japan, and certainly not Germany.

Had they made a different choice, the world today might be a very different place.


This is not the only time high-skilled immigrants (or "HSIs") have ridden to America's rescue. From the very beginning, the United States has enjoyed a unique advantage held by almost no other country on the planet: the ability to attract and retain a huge number of the world's best and brightest. Before independence, for example, America was the beneficiary of perhaps the most elite immigrant group in history. Millions of Scots, who constituted much of the intellectual and technological elite of the British Empire, left Great Britain to seek religious freedom and better economic opportunities in the 13 Colonies. Many of the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson and Hamilton, were partly or wholly descended from that Scottish wave, as were many of America's greatest early inventors, such as Thomas Edison.

Other bursts of "HSI" have proven no less of a windfall. Two waves of Jewish immigrants, one in the early 1900s and another fleeing the Nazis, yielded a multitude of scientists and entrepreneurs. In the late 20th Century, a wave of immigration from Taiwan did the same, giving us (for example) the man who revolutionized AIDS treatment (David Ho), as well as the founders of YouTube, Zappos, Yahoo, and Nvidia. In fact, immigrants or the children of immigrants have founded or co-founded nearly every legendary American technology company, including Google, Intel, Facebook, and of course Apple (you knew that Steve Jobs' father was named Abdulfattah Jandali, right?).

In this age of extreme polarization, it seems unlikely that there would be an issue where the benefits were so large and the correct course of action so clear that it would unite liberals and conservatives, allowing Democratic and Republican congressmen to pause in their struggle and rocket it through Congress. But it is not wishful thinking. There exists such a policy.

The United States must admit many more high-skilled immigrants.


Historical anecdotes aside, the economic benefits of HSI are clear. "Human capital" -- economist jargon for the skills and knowledge of the labor force -- is one of the key inputs of GDP. Put in more human capital, and your nation produces more. And high-skilled immigrants are bursting with human capital, like an oil field waiting to be tapped. Economists may argue back and forth about fiscal stimulus, or monetary policy, or tax rates (and in fact the two of us often do!), but very few would disagree that an inflow of geniuses is good for the economy.

High-skilled immigrants are not just good at their jobs. They create jobs. Research by the Kaufmann Foundation has documented that immigrants are unusually entrepreneurial, and High-Skilled Immigrants even more so. More than half of the start-ups in Silicon Valley, for instance, were started by immigrants, along with 25% of venture-backed companies that went public between 1990 and 2006.

In addition, high-skilled immigrants are innovators as well. Economists Jennifer Hunt and Marjolaine Gauthier-Loiselle find that a 1% increase in the share of immigrant college graduates in the population increases patents per capita by as much as 9-18%, after accounting for the "positive spillovers" by which HSI boost innovation by native-born inventors.

Conservatives should be eager to see American businesses and investors get their hands on such an unparalleled source of high-quality labor. But there is an economic benefit from HSI that should be particularly enticing to liberals: High-skilled immigration works against inequality.

Presented by

Adam Ozimek and Noah Smith

Adam Ozimek is an associate at an economics consulting firm and a blogger with Modeled Behavior. Noah Smith, a PhD Candidate in Economics at the University of Michigan, blogs at Noahpinion.

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