How Immigrants Can Fix Our Economy

As the debt ceiling negotiations drag on, Americans are getting frustrated with the brinksmanship being played in Washington, D.C. As usual, Congress is talking about all the wrong things. The discussion is far too narrowly focused on the immediate budgetary line — which is bound to change in the next year anyway no matter what is negotiated now. Newspapers and pundits counterbalance an increased debt ceiling with ideas on revenue increases (raising taxes) or diminishing government services like spending cuts. But what about other levers? What other tax-and-spending neutral, regulatory solutions would bend the curve upwards?

Immigration reform is one such lever. Economies can grow in two ways: the working population increases or productivity rises. Highly qualified immigration tackles both ends of that issue; it increases the supply of highly skilled scientific labor that the U.S. (and other developed economies like Germany and Japan) is increasingly short of, and increases the innovative potential in the country by bringing in new skills, practices, and cultural currents. A recent study showed that 40% of Fortune 500 countries were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. Immigrants have lower crime rates, better debt scores, place higher value on education, are more active voters, and in this author’s experience are generally more tolerant. 

Perhaps most importantly, an open America would continue to keep the belief alive internationally that the U.S. is a welcoming country, a land of opportunity with meritocratic and egalitarian beliefs. America's ability to absorb immigrants from all shores has always been its greatest competitive advantage.

Right now, we are failing on this count. We are so obsessed with keeping the “illegal” immigrants out that we are not letting the legal ones in. It is no wonder that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently said that “every day … that we fail to fix our broken immigration laws is a day that we inflict a wound on our economy." We are currently subsidizing the education of thousands of foreign-born science and math students who will graduate without a green card and be forced to head back to India, China, Turkey, and Russia, and work wonders there instead.

Republicans and Democrats largely recognize the value of highly skilled immigration. They have both acknowledged its worth. But because low-skilled immigration is such a caustic subject, with Republicans shouting down laws that would grant “amnesty” to the unofficial Americans around us and Democrats eager to harvest political votes with the same, we aren’t making any progress.

Budget hawks and economic mavens can give thanks to the congressional debt ceiling because at the very least, it has provoked a real national debate. Hidden behind theatrics, slogans, and accusations are real differences in ideology. What type of crisis will it take to provoke the same conversation on immigration reform?

Photo Credit: Kenn Wilson