01/11/2013 03:17 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

Build Bridges, Not Fences: Thirty Percent of U.S. Nobel Laureates Are Foreign-born

As the world is celebrating a new round of Nobel laureates in Stockholm, Sweden, there is an opportunity to consider another aspect of the ongoing U.S. immigration debate. Going back to the very first U.S. Nobel Prize in 1906, 30 percent of all U.S. Nobel laureates were foreign-born. This is an average, however, in some decades the percentages are even higher. In the 1980s, it was 35 percent, and in the 1950s, 39 percent. Moreover, these percentages greatly exceed the proportion of foreign-born persons in the U.S. population.

Working with colleagues Jean Boucher and Jessica Emami at the Institute for Immigration Research, we've found that the exceptional contributions made by the foreign-born living in the U.S. warrants consideration -- particularly as this year's Nobel Prize ceremony coincides with renewed interest in comprehensive immigration reform among U.S. policymakers and their constituents.

Though immigration is often a contentious subject, the United States is mostly a nation of immigrants. Yet in some repetitive fashion, each wave of new immigrants fights for acceptance. The players change, but the "game" stays the same. Oftentimes immigrants are viewed as a problem to be solved, rather than a resource; a common inclination is to build fences, rather than bridges. Comprehensive immigration reform would build those bridges, benefiting all immigrants -- not only the newly arrived but all of us who have been here for generations.

Not all immigrants will become Nobel Prize laureates, but what are the costs if they don't achieve their highest potential? It will be our own loss, as a nation, if immigrants are denied the opportunity to develop their talents and abilities; or if they don't feel welcomed and decide to take their high achievements and entrepreneurial abilities elsewhere. For example, twenty percent of the pharmacists in the U.S. are foreign-born. In 2006, over 25 percent of U.S. patent applications were submitted by the foreign-born. Between 1995 and 2005, one in four engineering and technology startups in the U.S. had an immigrant among their key founders. How would losses of this type affect the vitality of our economy and our way of life?

Though the immigration of some world-class scientists has been facilitated by pre-existing professional credentials, there are also telling exceptions. Mario Capecchi, for instance, born in Italy in 1941, was thought to be orphaned when Nazi soldiers arrested his mother and sent her to a concentration camp. His mother survived and years later, after a long, desperate search found Mario, weak and malnourished in an Italian hospital. With assistance from his uncle, Mario and his mother came to the U.S. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2007 for his contribution to the discovery of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells.

Daniel Tsui, born in 1939, was raised in a poor farming village in central China. Though his parents were illiterate, they resolved that Daniel would be educated. Through his local Lutheran church, Daniel was awarded a scholarship to Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. He was the only Chinese immigrant in his class. He pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago and, in 1998, won the Nobel Prize for Physics for research leading to the discovery of the "fractional Hall effect," which contributed greatly to understanding the behavior of matter.

In 1904, Isaac Bashevis Singer was born into the poor, overcrowded Jewish quarter of Warsaw, Poland. Early on he was attracted to stories and reading and his older brother influenced his journalistic pursuits. In 1935, he fled the Nazi threat in Poland for the U.S. and eventually became a prominent figure in literature. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

Mario, Daniel, and Isaac, are a part of the immigration story that should not be overlooked. It is difficult to predict when a little Italian orphan might become a Nobel laureate, but considering the historical record, one could easily place a broad bet on each cycle of immigrants, including the most recent: they will add to the economic strength and vitality of our nation.

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