Lifting Green Card limit may prove to be best investment of all

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From employing contractors who would help secure our borders to granting visas to more workers, the newly drafted “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013” is perhaps as much about creating financial benefit to the nation – near and long term – as it is about bringing immigration policy up to date.

One small piece of the legislation may pose the greatest potential for economic impact of all. It calls for removing the numerical limit of green cards awarded to foreign-born workers who have the skills and/or the capacity for contributing to the economy. “Doctoral degree holders in STEM fields” and “aliens of extraordinary ability in the sciences” are among the categories referenced. This means that if Congress were to approve the legislation as currently drafted, our nation would benefit greatly from this enhanced pipeline of brilliant talent.

This would be a prescient move. America’s future competitiveness is inextricably linked with innovation, and immigrants with advanced degrees – particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields – are engines of job growth.

Consider the oft-cited study “Immigration and American Jobs,” published in December 2011 by the American Enterprise Institute and the Partnership for a New American Economy. This analysis showed that an American-educated immigrant who has an advanced degree and works in a STEM occupation generated an additional 2.62 jobs among U.S. natives from 2000 to 2007. Furthermore, highly educated, foreign-born workers pay much more in government taxes than they receive in government benefits.

Other research affirms the entrepreneurial potential of highly educated immigrants. According to a 2011 report from the Brookings Institution, one in four patents filed in the United States in 2006 was based on the ingenuity of someone born in another country. And more than half of new high-tech startups in Silicon Valley were launched by immigrant entrepreneurs.

Consider the example of Andrew Grove. Born in Budapest in 1936, Grove left Hungary for New York in 1956. After receiving a doctorate in chemical engineering, Grove went on to work for Fairchild Semiconductor, where he helped co-found Intel Corporation in 1968. He became Intel’s president in 1979, CEO in 1987, chairman and CEO in 1997 and remained chairman of the board until November 2004. Based in large part on Grove’s leadership, Intel has grown into a $100+ billion company with more than 45,000 employees in the U.S. and 80,000 worldwide.

The question now is, will we finally see this clearly beneficial immigration policy put into action? Political leaders from both sides of the aisle have acknowledged the value of granting greater consideration to foreign-born engineers, scientists, and technology entrepreneurs. But other agendas have complicated proposed legislation, making substantive action elusive.

This time must be different. As a nation of immigrants, we must view immigrant engineers and scientists not as people fortunate to be here, but as key contributors and engines of economic growth. In the global marketplace, every advantage matters. We would do well to take all necessary steps to secure our future competitiveness.

May is dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.