Wanted: Super-Immigrants

01/20/2011 05:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In their first exuberant days in control of the House of Representatives, Republicans declared that a stricter immigration policy would be one of the top priorities in their imminent clashes with President Obama. Yet tightening our borders against all comers would cede a competitive advantage to other wealthy countries. Immigration policy has become inseparable from economic policy, and super-immigrants are at the heart of it.

Super-immigrants are the most highly skilled, educated, and entrepreneurial of the millions of people around the world who are looking for a new country. Their arrival is almost always an economic boon; they bring new ideas, energy, and expertise that contribute immediately to gross domestic product and to tax collections. They also cost very little, since they usually earn too much to be eligible for government-provided benefits.

Countries like Japan are in dire need of super-immigrants. Its population is aging, and its homegrown workforce is beginning to dwindle. If things continue this way, its government will struggle to pay the pensions promised to the elderly, and its economy will shrink. But as Hiroko Tabuchi reported in the Times this past week, the Japanese government makes it very difficult even for super-immigrants to stay for more than a few years. Indeed, in the past it has paid immigrants to go home.

For Japan, the United States, and other countries with strict immigration laws, attracting super-immigrants would require a U-turn in policy -- from one based on political and social goals to one that takes economics seriously as well. This change may come too late, though, as tens of thousands of super-immigrants are already going elsewhere.

Wealthy countries like Australia and the United Kingdom have already laid out the welcome mat for super-immigrants. Anyone thinking of moving to the United Kingdom, for example, can use a government website to see whether their education and earning potential will qualify them for immediate immigration; no standing job offer is necessary, and there is no cap on the number of people who may immigrate this way. In the 12 months to September, the United Kingdom admitted more than 32,000 super-immigrants and dependents, and it extended the stays of 82,000 more.

By contrast, immigration to the United States is a lengthy and arduous process. Even super-immigrants and their prospective employers often end up hiring lawyers to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles. In an economy roughly seven times as large as the United Kingdom, there are only about 100,000 work permits specifically for super-immigrants every year. About one-sixth of the permits are earmarked for citizens of just three countries (Australia, Chile, and Singapore), and they offer no formal path to citizenship.

This is a cruel irony for the United States, where growth in the second half of the 20th century received a big boost from the waves of highly educated scientists, engineers, and intellectuals who came here fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity. If we forgo that boost in the 21st century, we do so at our economic peril.