Against a backdrop of recent press reports detailing the beating that the U.S. is taking in the international battle for brains and foreign investment, and calling for improvements to our laws governing high skilled immigration, along comes another letter of concern from Senator Grassley, this time addressed to the Government Accounting Office, asking for yet another investigation What is the Senator concerned about this time? Vague and unspecified “reports” of abuses of Optional Practical Training, the program under which foreign students graduating from U.S. colleges and universities may work in the U.S. in their fields for a period during or after completion of their degree programs. The Senator would have perfect comic timing, if his efforts weren’t dead serious. To those of us not inclined to view the health of the U.S. economy as a laughing matter, Senator Grassley’s most recent anti-business immigration salvo shows how dangerously out of step he is with respect to the current thinking about the connection between the economy and high skilled and business immigration.
In the past year, there have been at least nine different legislative proposals that aim to improve our country’s attractiveness to the highly educated, especially in fields in which there are documented skill shortages among the U.S. born population, such as the hard sciences and the quantitative fields, and to enable those with innovative business ideas to stay and nurture those ideas to fruition here. Why has there been such a high level of legislative activity with respect to this aspect of our immigration laws? It is a recognition by legislators that the part of our immigration laws that deals with the needs of U.S. employers and the ability of the highly skilled to remain in the U.S. has remained virtually untouched for over 20 years, and is sorely in need of a massive update to bring it into the 21st century. Moreover, it is a response to the wealth of research published in recent years with respect to the contribution of foreign nationals to our economic well-being, clearly showing that we stop drawing on the diaspora of international talent at our peril as a nation.
A recent study by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation indicated that over half of Silicon Valley start-ups founded from 1995 to 2005 had one or more immigrants as key founder. Moreover, more than half of the foreign-born founders of U.S. technology and engineering businesses initially came to the U.S. to study. Seventy-five percent of the highest degrees among immigrant entrepreneurs were in STEM fields. Recent press reports have also pointed to the fact that our competitor countries see our outdated immigration system as a major weakness and are targeting it directly. Canada recently announced changes in its business immigration system designed to make it easier for entrepreneurs to immigrate, and in particular, to run small businesses in Canada. And perhaps the clearest symbol of the level of frustration with our unworkable system is the Blueseed project—the proposed “pirate entrepreneur” ship that will be docked off the coast of Silicon Valley and will provide development space for those who cannot obtain visas to launch a business in the U.S.—including many talented and creative graduates of U.S. business schools and other graduate programs.
Much of the animosity that comes out of Senator Grassley’s office toward high skilled immigration programs seems to be premised upon a perception that fraud and abuse lurk around every corner of those programs. One could certainly take issue with that, given the fact that according to USCIS’s own statistics, the incidence of fraud is relatively low. But the Senator’s most recent targeting of the OPT program—with no apparent factual basis whatsoever—really shows him to be out there on the fringe of the current national dialogue on how a smart immigration system can stimulate economic growth, particularly compared to his own colleagues in Congress. It lends credence to the conclusion that Mr. Grassley is simply out to wage a holy war on any and all improvements to our high skilled immigration system.
Now is the time for us to expand –not restrict–all possible opportunities to keep brainpower and dollars within our borders.