THE BLOG
08/20/2014 03:51 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2014

Diversity Is America's 21st Century Strength

By Mathew Burrows and Alidad Mafinezam

Lost in the current arguments over immigration is America's dependence on a diverse workforce for its long term strength. The emotionally wrenching sight of thousands of children from Central America seeking refuge in the United States is persuading many Americans that the country should close its doors. This is despite the fact that the single most important action we can take for our future is ensuring America remains the magnet for the world's talent. Instead of seeking political advantage in the current unfortunate crisis, US leaders of all stripes should be making the case for diversity -- it is after all what makes the US exceptional among the world's leading nations.

Open immigration is not the answer, but the United States should not hold up the reform of skilled-immigration programs like the H-1B and L-1 visas because of the political logjam over how to stop the flow of illegal immigration. The US government could also do more to encourage diversity not just in science and technology fields, but more broadly in using America's diversity to strengthen its influence in the world.

Largely because of immigration, the US birth rate is near replacement at 2.07 children per childbearing female unlike all other industrialized countries and, many emerging powers, including China. Population growth is good for the economy, lessening the financial drag resulting from increasing numbers living longer and the rising costs of pensions and health care. Immigration means the US population weight in the world will be roughly as it is now in fifteen years' time because of immigrants' higher birth rate. By contrast, the European Union's share of global population will drop a full percentage point from 7.1 percent to 6.1 percent by 2030 partly due to immigrants making up a smaller proportion -- 10 percent -- versus 14.3 percent in the United States, according to UN population data.

Study after study shows that diversity in the business world unlocks innovation and drives market growth. According to the 2008 Current Population Survey, immigrants represent 16 percent of the US workforce with a bachelor's education and account for 29 percent of the growth in this workforce from 1995 to 2008.

Immigrants account for a majority of the net increase in the US workforce concentrated in the so-called STEM work (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) since 1995. According to William R. Kerr at the Harvard Business School, immigration "provides the United States with a number of exceptional superstars for STEM work. Second, immigration acts through the sheer quantity of workers that it provides for STEM fields." Kerr believes that the "quantity aspect of high-skilled immigration is the stronger factor" in terms of impact.

The United States has been the top destination for immigrants for so long that it's hard to imagine real competition in this space. However, other countries -- partly due to labor shortages -- are starting to compete with the United States in attracting top talent. UNESCO, OECD and other studies have noted the erosion in the US share with Asian, Middle Eastern, and European universities attracting increasing proportions of international students.

The EU has its Blue Card, which allows highly skilled non-EU nationals to live and work temporarily in an EU member state and ultimately acquire long-term EU residence rights. Germany -- which faces a demographic crunch soon -- has expanded immigration options for entrepreneurs and recent graduates. Foreign students and graduates of German universities have a 12-month grace period for finding full-time employment. Japan, which has been highly restrictive until now, has implemented a new point-based immigration program to attract highly skilled foreign workers. Canada and Australia have developed fast-track test for easing the hiring of more highly skilled workers.

Immigrants to the United States represent all of the world's regions and they constitute a major human bridge between their new and old homes. They possess both the knowledge and often the ability to bring about "win-win" outcomes for the US and their countries and regions of origin by engaging in knowledge exchange, economic development, and cooperation in a range of areas.

A good example of this is the upcoming Bridge 2014 event at the University of California at Berkeley on "High-Tech Entrepreneurship in Iran: Opportunities and Challenges." The convention is backed by dozens of world class Iranian-American entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and technologists, who aim, indirectly, to bring about an environment of mutual advancement in what is one of the most vexing issues in international relations.

Tens of billions of dollars in remittances are sent each year from the US to all the world's regions, an impact that is especially palpable across Central America. If the potential of the Mexican, Nicaraguan, El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran diaspora is effectively harnessed to merge their resources, the development and educational prospects of these countries would receive a strong boost, potentially easing pressures for the incoming immigrants. US institutions should thus move "beyond remittances" and empower these US-based communities to better help the development prospects of their country of origin, by harnessing diasporic talent in developing better infrastructure and educational and healthcare systems locally and internationally.

Despite this opportunity, an appraisal of Washington's leading foreign policy institutions -- think tanks, foundations, and the media -- shows that the dynamism and diversity of America's population is not optimally reflected in the ranks of the "idea generators" and "educators." For the past twenty years, Washington's professional foreign policy community has not tapped into diaspora communities' potential.

Scores of untapped diaspora leaders and communities have deep and influential ties to all the world's regions, but often feel distant and detached from official Washington. With greater government engagement, the diaspora communities could raise the level and impact of their activities to new heights, projecting a forward-looking vision of globally active Americans who can build bridges of mutual gain and effective international cooperation.

Mathew Burrows is director of the Atlantic Council's Strategic Foresight Initiative and author of forthcoming The Future Declassified: Megatrends That Undo the World Unless We Take Action (Palgrave/Macmillan). Alidad Mafinezam is president of the West Asia Council, who has written on immigration, pluralism, and diaspora communities.