Turning away foreign talent — a costly practice for US competitiveness

Donald Trump is doubling down on his race-baiting attacks on Mexico. Over the weekend, the Republican presidential hopeful had a public fallout with Univision when he informed the Spanish-language television network he was banning their executives from his Miami golf resort next door to the network’s offices. The move came on the heels of Univision dropping out of Trump’s Miss USA pageant, a decision it made after Trump remarked that Mexico is “sending people that have a lot of problems,” that “are bringing drugs and crime [and] rapists” to the United States.

Trump has since refused to apologize for what many are calling racist comments.

The national conversation sparked by Trump’s controversial foray into the presidential race has added to my growing concern that we as a country are drifting far off-course regarding immigration, seeing only trees in a vast, vast forest.

The world economy is rapidly changing, and our immigration laws are not keeping time with economic progress at great detriment to the future of the United States. Our immigration system needs to be reformed to address the needs of our industries, whether for low or high-skilled people. Certainly there is a fight going on for American businesses to hire the highly skilled individuals they need to keep competitive in the increasingly digital economy, a fight that we are losing.

We’ve known for many years now about the growth potential of the tech sector, but we had no idea that it would outpace other sectors so quickly. There simply aren’t enough native-born people to fill highly specialized STEM field vacancies, and yet, as the industry matures, critical positions seem to multiply. Despite our steadily climbing reliance on the technology sector, we are as yet unable to meet growing industry demand through domestically sourced talent.

For example, as is the case with many STEM education programs at American universities, more than half of the graduate students enrolled at the University of Texas’s Cockrell School of Engineering are foreign-born, and nearly a third of them will be forced to turn down opportunities to work at American tech companies. And so, newly minted diploma in hand, much of our domestically educated but foreign-born talent pool is asked to leave the country following graduation because there are too few visas to satisfy demand. The majority of them will return to their home or other countries where they will utilize their top-tier American education for the benefit of the U.S.’s global competitors.

Additionally, the infrastructure that supports our technology sector much more readily crosses borders than the brick and mortar factories of Detroit and other cities that have seen job flight over the last few decades. If we don’t do something soon, we may wake up tomorrow to find that the next or even current era of tech companies have set up shop in Dublin or Shanghai. Microsoft is exemplifying just such a shift with its decision to open a new training center just across the border in Vancouver, Canada, only a few hours’ drive from its global headquarters in Washington State. Karen Jones, Microsoft’s deputy general counsel, says that the U.S.’s restrictive immigration regulations “clearly did not meet our needs. We have to look to other places.”

Other companies, too, are seeking the more modern immigration regulations to the north. Amazon, Salesforce, Twitter and Facebook all purchased additional office space in Canada and posted numerous job openings to fill the new expansion efforts. Whether it’s Canada or Costa Rica, major U.S. tech companies are demonstrating a willingness to shift operations wherever they need to remain competitive.

To compound the problem, some American policy-makers, like Mr. Trump, are looking at immigration in the wrong way. Immigration reform is vital to sustaining U.S. economic growth and ensuring American competitiveness through an increased talent pool of STEM workers, but it also happens to bolster, rather than detract from, native-born U.S. workers’ incomes.

Since 1990, skilled STEM immigrants have accounted for more than a third of total U.S. productivity, meeting demand for skilled workers and driving industry innovation and productivity. The data show that 187 new American jobs are created for every 100 H-1B visa holders admitted. That’s real growth. Although foreign workers bridge the skills gap across all industries, they are particularly beneficial to the technology sector as economic growth hinges ever-increasingly on innovation driven by the latest global thinking.

Bjorn Billhardt, an immigrant from Germany, in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this spring, recounted his story of finding great success in the United States, but only because he was lucky enough to have immigrated in the 90s. “Immigrants or their children have founded over 40 percent of fortune 500 companies. Without immigrant entrepreneurs, the United States would not be home to companies like Google, eBay, and Yahoo!,” Billhardt asserts. “It is easy to imagine that if those companies aren’t grown in the U.S., they would have been created overseas, and we would have missed out on that innovation and those American jobs.”

Some have expressed a fear that expansion of the H-1B program could harm American workers, but at what cost to American economic power? To stay at the forefront of today’s economic growth, we urgently need to work within the modern, ever-globalizing economy as it exists, and not as some idealists among us might like to see it.

Translating this growth into long-term economic benefit for the United States hinges on our ability to attract the talent that can fill the positions our evolving economy needs. Should America’s tech industry continue to outgrow immigration reform, we may one day be waving reluctantly as it leaves our shores and goes abroad altogether. Perhaps then, Mr. Trump, you will understand that technological innovation, much like your merchandise, can also be “made in China.”


Marin is co-chairwoman of the American Competitiveness Alliance. She immigrated from Mexico to the United States with her family at the age of 14 and served as the 41st Treasurer of the United States from 2001- 2003. Marin is the author of Leading Between Two Worlds: Lessons from the First Mexican-Born Treasurer of the United States.

Tags Donald Trump Immigration visas

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