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.
A LEGACY OF GENIUS
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.
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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.
Nowadays, the talk is all about "the 1 percent," top executives, and the finance industry. But equally important is the divergence of America's middle class that occurred in the 1980s. As returns to education skyrocketed, an educated upper middle class pulled away from a medium-skilled lower middle class. The disparity stopped increasing after the 80s, but it has never gone away.
HSI will fight this trend. Boosting the supply of high-skilled workers makes low- and mid-skilled workers proportionately more scarce, increasing their relative incomes. Economist Enrico Moretti finds that earnings of a high school graduate increase 7% for every 10% increase in the percent of people in a city that are college graduates. While having more high-skilled workers around tends to raise everyone's salaries, Moretti's research shows that low-skilled workers benefit four to five times more than college graduates. Even as liberals work to find a way to counteract the problem of the 1 percent, they should view HSI as a step toward turning America back into a true middle-class society.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
If all this makes HSI sound like an unbelievable bargain, it's because that's exactly what it is. What voters and policymakers need to realize is that we are standing at a unique moment in our history, where both the supply of High-Skilled Immigrants and the need for them are at historic highs. Salaries for software engineers have doubled, signaling high demand. And the number of educated immigrants clamoring to move here from countries like India is extremely high. The only thing keeping employers from employees is the U.S. Border Patrol.
But this opportunity may not last. As countries develop, high-skilled people can earn decent salaries at home, or start businesses more cheaply than in America. Already, a growing number of high-skilled Chinese people are choosing to return to China after going to graduate school in the U.S.
We still have a window of opportunity to grab HSI from India and Southeast Asia, but that window will not be open forever. A well-documented thicket of visa restrictions and skilled immigration quotas is leaving would-be American geniuses on the outside looking in. A report by the Technology Policy Institute found that visa restrictions kicked out enough foreign graduates of U.S. universities to slice $13.6 billion off of our GDP from 2003 through 2007. Meanwhile, countries like Canada, Australia, and the UK are actively wooing the immigrants we shut out; although the U.S. still attracts the greatest percentage of High-Skilled Immigrants, these other countries, especially our neighbor to the north, are catching up fast.
A rapid, dramatic change is needed. Fortunately, the stars may now perfectly aligned for a liberalization of HSI policy. The facts we have listed are not new. But in the past, HSI was held up in Congress because it was overshadowed by the illegal immigration debate; Democrats would not reform HSI policy unless the GOP made concessions regarding illegal immigration, which the GOP refused to do. Now, with illegal immigration from Mexico going into reverse, this should no longer be a sticking point. There is a clear opportunity for rapid compromise that reforms our broken High-Skilled Immigration system.
Right now, the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of this slam-dunk policy is a small handful of influential politicians, acting out of a misguided attempt to protect native-born workers (who in reality would benefit greatly from HSI). One such person is Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who has repeatedly placed holds on a number of bills designed to increase HSI. Our hope is that if this issue gains more prominence, it will be very hard for people like Senator Grassley to engage in this sort of obstructionism.
GIVE US YOUR GENIUSES
There are many ideas for increasing HSI, but is not our intent to single out any one of these ideas as "the" solution to the problem. The most important thing, we believe, is simply the outcome: what we need is a much greater number of High-Skilled Immigrants moving to this country.
In this time of economic uncertainty and political strife, the United States must play to its strengths. Our most enduring strength - the thing that sets us apart and ahead - has always been that we are the country where the world's best want to live. In return for the chance to live here, immigrants have time and again helped our nation to maintain its pole position among the nations of the Earth.
Let's go get another batch of genius.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.