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James M. Gentile

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Immigration, Science and Technology

Posted: 10/24/2012 4:23 pm

Immigration has been key to America's preeminence in science and technology, and yet we're losing our competitive advantage. The loss of highly skilled immigrants is a serious threat to our global economic leadership -- and the jobs that flow from it -- and eliminating government obstacles in the way of that talent should be a top priority for bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill once elections are over.

In a recent report titled "Not Coming to America: Why the U.S.
is Falling Behind in the Global Race for Talent," the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Partnership for New York City wrote:

More than 40 percent of America's Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. In recent years, however, U.S. immigration laws have failed to keep pace with the country's changing economic needs. Artificially low limits on the number of visas and serious bureaucratic obstacles prevent employers from hiring the people they need -- and drive entrepreneurs to other countries, who are quick to welcome them.

The Economist wrote recently: "The world's most valuable resource is talent. No country grows enough of it. Some, however, enjoy the colossal advantage of being able to import it... Yet for more than a decade America has been choking off its supply of foreign talent, like a scuba diver squeezing his own breathing tube."

The Kauffman Foundation has studied immigrant entrepreneurship in America extensively. In a recent report titled "Then and Now: America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Part VII," it notes, "43.9 percent of Silicon Valley startups founded in the last seven years had at least one key founder who was an immigrant. This represents a notable drop in immigrant-founded companies since 2005, when 52.4 percent of Silicon Valley startups were immigrant-founded." Of the engineering and technology companies founded in the United States between 2006 and 2012, the report states: "24.3 percent of these companies had at least one key founder who was foreign-born... Nationwide, these companies employed roughly 560,000 workers and generated $63 billion in sales in 2012."

Steve Case, co-founder of AOL and now Chairman and CEO of Revolution LLC, addressed this issue in a recent commentary for TheAtlantic.com's series "America the Fixable." He wrote:

Since the early 1980s, entrepreneurs founding new startups created around 40 million American jobs, accounting for all of the country's net job growth during that period... In recent years, however, the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the United States has not churned out job gains at its historical pace: During the five year period ending in 2010, the number of startups with more than one employee decreased by more than 25 percent, and new startups that are launching are adding fewer jobs on average than in previous decades... As we begin writing the next chapter of the American story, we need to return to our entrepreneurial roots and improve the environment for a new generation of pioneering risk-takers to do what they do best. By fixing a broken high-skilled immigration system and encouraging the world's most talented innovators to contribute here in the United States, we will once again secure our lead as the world's most entrepreneurial economy.

Steve Case's advice deserves particular attention, given his track record. In addition to co-founding AOL, his current investment firm, Revolution, has backed more than two dozen companies, including LivingSocial, Zipcar, AddThis, Everyday Health, and FedBid. And he is currently Chairman of the Startup America Partnership, Co-Chair of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Chair of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness' work on entrepreneurship, as well as Chairman of the Case Foundation.

A growing political consensus is emerging on the importance of highly skilled immigrants to the American economy. As David Bier wrote for Forbes.com, "In the heated immigration debate, a bright spot has emerged -- the bipartisan consensus that high-skilled immigrants benefit the economy." Yet the issue remains embroiled in the broader immigration debate around which no consensus has emerged.

It's time to separate the two issues. Americans want jobs, and our nation's capacity to attract the highly skilled immigrants who have historically produced those jobs is at stake. That issue -- regardless of politics -- is distinctly different from the issue of securing our borders.

America's broken visa system is undercutting the innovative entrepreneurship that has generated the jobs that Americans so desperately need. It's time to fix the problem.

As the Economist writes: "America ought to be winning the global war for talent, but thanks to its immigration rules, it is fighting with both hands cuffed."

James M. Gentile is President and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), which celebrates its Centennial -- 100 years of science advancement -- this year.

 
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