|Give Us Your Skilled Masses [WSJ commentary]|
By GARY S. BECKER
November 30, 2005; Page A18
With border security and proposals for a guest-worker program back on the front page, it is vital that the U.S. -- in its effort to cope with undocumented workers -- does not overlook legal immigration. The number of people allowed in is far too small, posing a significant problem for the economy in the years ahead. Only 140,000 green cards are issued annually, with the result that scientists, engineers and other highly skilled workers often must wait years before receiving the ticket allowing them to stay permanently in the U.S.
An alternate route for highly skilled professionals -- especially information technology workers -- has been temporary H-1B visas, good for specific jobs for three years with the possibility of one renewal. But Congress foolishly cut the annual quota of H-1B visas in 2003 from almost 200,000 to well under 100,000. The small quota of 65,000 for the current fiscal year that began on Oct. 1 is already exhausted!
This is mistaken policy. The right approach would be to greatly increase the number of entry permits to highly skilled professionals and eliminate the H-1B program, so that all such visas became permanent. Skilled immigrants such as engineers and scientists are in fields not attracting many Americans, and they work in IT industries, such as computers and biotech, which have become the backbone of the economy. Many of the entrepreneurs and higher-level employees in Silicon Valley were born overseas. These immigrants create jobs and opportunities for native-born Americans of all types and levels of skills.
So it seems like a win-win situation. Permanent rather than temporary admissions of the H-1B type have many advantages. Foreign professionals would make a greater commitment to becoming part of American culture and to eventually becoming citizens, rather than forming separate enclaves in the expectation they are here only temporarily. They would also be more concerned with advancing in the American economy and less likely to abscond with the intellectual property of American companies -- property that could help them advance in their countries of origin.
Basically, I am proposing that H-1B visas be folded into a much larger, employment-based green card program with the emphasis on skilled workers. The annual quota should be multiplied many times beyond present limits, and there should be no upper bound on the numbers from any single country. Such upper bounds place large countries like India and China, with many highly qualified professionals, at a considerable and unfair disadvantage -- at no gain to the U.S.
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To be sure, the annual admission of a million or more highly skilled workers such as engineers and scientists would lower the earnings of the American workers they compete against. The opposition from competing American workers is probably the main reason for the sharp restrictions on the number of immigrant workers admitted today. That opposition is understandable, but does not make it good for the country as a whole.
Doesn't the U.S. clearly benefit if, for example, India's government spends a lot on the highly esteemed Indian Institutes of Technology to train scientists and engineers who leave to work in America? It certainly appears that way to the sending countries, many of which protest against this emigration by calling it a "brain drain."
Yet the migration of workers, like free trade in goods, is not a zero sum game, but one that usually benefits the sending and the receiving country. Even if many immigrants do not return home to the nations that trained them, they send back remittances that are often sizeable; and some do return to start businesses.
Experience shows that countries providing a good economic and political environment can attract back many of the skilled men and women who have previously left. Whether they return or not, they gain knowledge about modern technologies that becomes more easily incorporated into the production of their native countries.
Experience also shows that if America does not accept greatly increased numbers of highly skilled professionals, they might go elsewhere: Canada and Australia, to take two examples, are actively recruiting IT professionals.
Since earnings are much higher in the U.S., many skilled immigrants would prefer to come here. But if they cannot, they may compete against us through outsourcing and similar forms of international trade in services. The U.S. would be much better off by having such skilled workers become residents and citizens -- thus contributing to our productivity, culture, tax revenues and education rather than to the productivity and tax revenues of other countries.
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I do, however, advocate that we be careful about admitting students and skilled workers from countries that have produced many terrorists, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. My attitude may be dismissed as religious "profiling," but intelligent and fact-based profiling is essential in the war against terror. And terrorists come from a relatively small number of countries and backgrounds, unfortunately mainly of the Islamic faith. But the legitimate concern about admitting terrorists should not be allowed, as it is now doing, to deny or discourage the admission of skilled immigrants who pose little terrorist threat.
Nothing in my discussion should be interpreted as arguing against the admission of unskilled immigrants. Many of these individuals also turn out to be ambitious and hard-working and make fine contributions to American life. But if the number to be admitted is subject to political and other limits, there is a strong case for giving preference to skilled immigrants for the reasons I have indicated.
Other countries, too, should liberalize their policies toward the immigration of skilled workers. I particularly think of Japan and Germany, both countries that have rapidly aging, and soon to be declining, populations that are not sympathetic (especially Japan) to absorbing many immigrants. These are decisions they have to make. But America still has a major advantage in attracting skilled workers, because this is the preferred destination of the vast majority of them. So why not take advantage of their preference to come here, rather than force them to look elsewhere?
Mr. Becker, the 1992 Nobel laureate in economics, is University Professor of Economics and Sociology at the University of Chicago and the Rose-Marie and Jack R. Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.