The past several months have been dominated by an economic debate in Washington with old, familiar arguments. Republicans generally want to cut spending and Democrats generally want to raise revenues. But there’s a third way to right the ship, reduce our deficit, and balance the budget, and that’s economic growth. And there’s one budget-neutral way to grow our economy: immigration reform.
Finally, this past week, Washington has shifted its focus to this long-elusive goal. A bipartisan group of senators announced a plan last Tuesday, primarily focused on border and workplace enforcement and a pathway to legalization. On the same day, another group of senators introduced a bill to double the number of high-skilled H-1B visas and let foreign students at U.S. universities apply for green cards while still on their student visas. The announcements came on the eve of President Obama’s speech in Nevada last Wednesday, where he announced similar initiatives, as well as new measures to retain foreign-born entrepreneurs and investors.
Enforcement was a key element of the plans, which included increased border security with aerial drones, an enhanced system to ensure foreigners don’t overstay their visas, and a call for a nationwide program for employers to verify legal status. The truth is that enforcement is important, both as part of a complete package and to attract the support of conservatives, but it’s not the marquee issue. America needs to secure its borders and ensure individuals are following the laws, but rather than debating how big the fence should be, we should be focused on how big of an economic bump the country will reap from finally fixing our broken immigration system.
The potential contribution has been made clear in a number of studies. First, when it comes to the 11 million immigrants here illegally, a pathway to citizenship is a pathway to prosperity for the American economy. The Center for American Progress argues that legalizing all 11 million illegal immigrants would add $1.5 trillion to U.S. GDP over a decade. The same organization estimates that passing the DREAM Act would add $329 billion to the U.S. economy over the next two decades. Providing a mechanism to earn citizenship will help drive the U.S. economy, leading to a younger labor pool that is complimentary to America’s workforce.
When it comes to job creation, immigrant inventors and entrepreneurs are key to increased innovation and employment opportunities. The National Foundation for American Policy estimates that five additional jobs are created for every H-1B visa because high-skilled immigrants often work in areas that drive research and development and exports. Their research creates new products, and ultimately, new market opportunities. As an example, Duke University’s Vivek Wadhwa found that immigrants were behind 72% of Qualcomm’s patents, 64% of General Electric’s, and 41% of the U.S. Government’s.
And the propensity of immigrants to create something new is not a new phenomenon. Since America’s founding, immigrants have started businesses ranging from the small corner store to major cornerstones of industry. In one recent study, The Partnership for A New American Economy found that immigrants or their children launched more than 40% of the companies listed on the Fortune 500. These include highly recognizable companies like Apple, Google, GE and McDonalds, and collectively, Fortune 500 companies founded by these new Americans employ more than 10 million people worldwide and have more than $1.7 trillion in revenues.
At a time when America is still facing economic calamities and international competition, the country can’t afford to continue to kick the can down the road when it comes to fixing our immigration system. Thousands of highly-skilled, highly-motivated immigrants are waiting to come to the United States and contribute to our economy. But we’re not the only player in town anymore. Other countries have already tied economic considerations to their immigration policies, and they’re working to attract the best and the brightest. The question now is whether Washington is capable of taking the bold steps needed to retain America’s position as a primary destination for talent, or will political gridlock continue to thwart economic growth. Let’s hope that last week’s rush to action is a sign of swift progress to come.
This post originally appeared on the Future Forum.