Originally Published in The National Review
David H. McCormick and James M. Cunningham – May 13, 2021
By lighting a beacon for talent, we will advance our economic and geostrategic interests
Only in America would portraits of legendary diplomats appear alongside those of émigrés from Afghanistan, Russia, and Egypt, all painted by a former president. Yet there they are in the pages of George W. Bush’s new book, Out of Many, One. Recently unveiled in Dallas, the president’s collection celebrates American pluralism through intimate portraits of immigrants. These small stories tell a larger truth about America: We stand out in our capacity to draw the best and brightest to our shores.
For generations, new Americans have continually renewed our country’s human capital. They have driven innovation, embraced America’s entrepreneurial spirit, and bolstered our national power. Indeed, America’s ability to attract global talent has long been one of our strongest competitive advantages.
We still lead the race, but our competitors are closing in. While other countries have taken steps to attract highly skilled immigrants from a growing pool of global talent, successive U.S. administrations have made it harder for skilled immigrants to come to and work and stay in America. In the midst of a generational contest with China in which technological leadership is increasingly vital to both national security and global leadership, we are undermining our own capacity to win. We must relight the beacon for skilled immigration.
For generations, talented immigrants have made outsized contributions to scientific and technological development and spurred on innovation. They have received over one-third of America’s Nobel prizes in chemistry, medicine, and physics this century, and international students fill STEM classrooms and help sustain America’s technological edge in AI-related fields and other key sectors. From Silicon Valley to Brookfield, Wis., foreign-born entrepreneurs also are engines of economic dynamism. They founded 50 of the 91 privately held start-ups valued at over $1 billion and, with their children, started over 45 percent of Fortune 500 companies, creating countless jobs.
Whether advancing the frontiers of science or energizing local economies, talented immigrants have bettered the nation. One Stanford study found that, from 1976 to 2012, immigrants helped produce 30 percent of American innovation, primarily through their catalytic effect on those around them: “More than 2?3 of the contribution of immigrants to U.S. innovation has been due to the way in which immigrants make U.S. natives substantially more productive themselves.” The benefits have rarely been clearer than in this past year, as two immigrant-founded firms, Pfizer (alongside BioNTech) and Moderna, led the greatest feat of lifesaving innovation in recent memory: the rapid development of multiple COVID-19 vaccines.
Their achievement exemplifies how critical knowledge-based workers and entrepreneurs are to U.S. success. No other country has gained so much from skilled immigration or stands to in the future. With global leadership increasingly dependent on innovation, America must jealously guard its ability to attract and retain top global talent. Yet we are falling behind.
The number of talented people looking to emigrate continues to grow. Since 1990, the global immigrant population has grown from 153 to 272 million, and those seeking new homes are better educated and more highly skilled than ever before. Other countries have moved to take advantage of this opportunity. Canada and Australia expanded their generous policies to attract and retain individuals with entrepreneurial ideas and cutting-edge skills. Likewise, Germany increased temporary visas for skilled workers and opened its doors to more people from outside the European Union. Even historically restrictive countries, such as Japan and China, are now competing for highly skilled migrants.
Meanwhile, America has gone in the opposite direction. We have not increased caps on skilled migrants for years. Since 2015, petitions for new and continuing-employment visas and for green cards have been denied or delayed at far higher rates. Policy and regulatory changes have also caused slowdowns, with processing times for employment-based green cards more than doubling. Besides hurting businesses’ ability to get workers, these barriers make it more painful to come to and stay in America.
Facing global competition and higher domestic hurdles, U.S. schools have reported fewer new international enrollments for four years running, even before COVID-19. In fact, America’s share of all international students decreased from 28 percent in 2001 to 21 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, China’s share increased from 3 percent to 9 percent and continues to grow.
These trends are discouraging, and policy-makers ought to reverse them. But they also must manage very real risks. Chief among them is the security threat. Our adversaries have recruited researchers and students to illicitly acquire intellectual property and other proprietary information, or to be their mouthpieces on campuses and thereby compromise academic integrity and stifle speech. But these acts perpetrated by a small number of bad actors can be addressed through greater transparency about who is sponsoring researchers, rigorous enforcement of existing rules requiring disclosure of funding sources, and selective restrictions on those affiliated with competitors’ militaries or intelligence services. Broadly banning foreign talent would, as Georgetown University scholars Remco Zwetsloot and Zachary Arnold recently observed, hurt us twice over: It would slow U.S. innovation and end brain drain to the United States, one of our defining advantages in international competition.
Critics also warn that skilled migrants threaten American jobs and that existing laws are too often exploited. The latter concern calls for more-rigorous adherence to the rules, not greater restrictions. The former is not borne out by the evidence. Only 54,000 out of 1 million green cards given in 2019 went to skilled workers. Even with an additional 85,000 temporary work visas granted each year, this small cohort displaces American workers minimally, and targeted policies can help those affected. More important, skilled migrants create jobs through both their entrepreneurship and the demand they generate, to say nothing of their even greater impact on economic growth and innovation.
Policy-makers should address these concerns in good faith, but none cancels out the benefits of high-skilled immigration. Rather than turn talent away, Washington can select from a menu of options both to bring in talent and to minimize the risks.
First are commonsense solutions, many of which have bipartisan support: simplify and accelerate visa and green-card reviews for high-skilled applicants; create a visa for well-vetted talent to support national-security-oriented innovation; and enhance protections against intellectual-property theft and technology transfer. These steps would both leverage the contributions of global talent and mitigate the risks, particularly if taken alongside rigorous enforcement of existing immigration laws.
Second are modest reforms. These include increasing the number of green cards for high-skilled foreigners; shortening the time it takes to gain permanent residency; removing geographic quotas; and recruiting from less common homelands — we should not presume to know from where the next Sergey Brin or Charles Pfizer will come. Washington could also consider a “heartland visa” to attract talent to traditionally underserved areas, and it could ensure that foreign students receiving advanced degrees in high-priority disciplines can stay in the United States. Why should U.S. universities train some of the world’s foremost engineers and scientists only for them to leave for lack of either an immediately available job or available green cards?
Third, policy-makers should consider more-fundamental changes to our skilled-immigration laws. Should we adopt a points system that retains numerical caps on visas and green cards but prioritizes specific skills or educational backgrounds, as Republican lawmakers have proposed? Or should we replace caps with a standards-based model that welcomes all who meet certain criteria? More narrowly, should we establish a separate program for the families of employment-based green-card recipients, so that they do not take up slots that otherwise would go to workers?
Policy-makers should debate the merits of these ideas and be open to change. These are separate matters from America’s broader immigration posture or the challenge of illegal immigration. Rife with complex economic, security, political, and cultural implications, those issues demand action. But divisions over these more controversial dimensions should not stand in the way of the basic steps needed to ensure our economic and national security. Nor, given the seriousness of the challenge to American geopolitical leadership, should policy-makers shy away from overhauling a clearly faulty system.
The moment calls for ambition. Intent on competing more effectively with China, Republicans and Democrats have proposed admirable plans to support domestic semiconductor production, invest in research and development, and strengthen protections of intellectual property and U.S. technology. These important ideas follow from a recognition that the global economy has become a primary arena of geopolitical tension and that the race for technological supremacy is its most contested front. But they largely overlook America’s asymmetric advantage as a beacon for global talent.
To be sure, the backbone of America is its homegrown talent, and a high-skilled-immigration agenda should only complement, not substitute for, a nationwide commitment to expanding access to opportunity for all Americans. Such an effort is vital and existential but also complex; reforming education and increasing workforce development and mobility will take time. While we work at these thorny problems, we should also add to our human capital.
In his last days in office, Ronald Reagan warned that “if we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.” His words resonate today. Scarred by COVID-19 and in the midst of a great-power competition with China, America needs to achieve economic renewal and increase its national power. Highly skilled immigrants will help. Even in this polarized environment, America’s leaders must find a way to cross party lines and take steps to keep the country attractive and competitive in the race for global talent.
— Mr. McCormick is the CEO of Bridgewater Associates and has served in senior positions in the Treasury Department, the White House, and the Commerce Department. Mr. Cunningham is a research associate at Bridgewater Associates. This article is adapted from “The Race for Global Leadership Is a Race for Global Talent,” a report originally published by the American Enterprise Institute.