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Rep. Patrick Kennedy Headshot

Bring on the Best and the Brightest

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Over the course of our country's history, foreign-born innovators have made enormous contributions to our national prosperity. That much is indisputable. Companies like Google, Intel, Yahoo!, Sun Microsystems, and eBay have been founded by foreign-born entrepreneurs. As the global competition for talent grows more intense, we should take care to ensure that our immigration policies allow these kinds of contributions to continue. We need these people innovating, researching, opening businesses, and creating jobs here in the United States, rather than in China or India.

For that reason, Representative Michael McCaul and I recently introduced the New American Innovators Act. Our legislation is very simple: it would exempt anyone receiving a Ph.D. from an American university from numerical immigration limits. Under our bill, these talented individuals would no longer have to wait for years on end before qualifying for a green card.

We understand that the New American Innovators Act is not a comprehensive solution to the problems plaguing our high-skill immigration system. However, we do feel that our bill, and others like it, can help to illuminate the most compelling reasons for opening our borders to the most talented, highly educated individuals in the world, regardless of their country of origin.

Too often, discussions regarding our high-skill immigration policy get bogged down in a debate over the relative quality of the American workforce. I am not diminishing the importance of that debate; in fact, it is critical to our national future. But its outcome should not be the sole determinant of our high-skill immigration policy.

Well-known Stanford economist Paul Romer has discussed a "prospector theory" of high-skill immigration. As Mr. Romer describes it, "the more people you have prospecting, the more you will be stumbling on rich veins of gold."

American universities regularly graduate American students of the highest quality, and our economy has reaped the benefits for decades. But American universities also produce foreign graduates of equally high quality. Our economy has benefited from their talents as well. In fact, between 1995 and 2005 one quarter of all start-up engineering and technology firms in the United States had at least one foreign-born founder. By 2005, these companies produced $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers.

The individuals we are targeting with our legislation are the best of the best. A Ph.D. from an American university is the gold standard in higher education. These individuals are not going to take jobs from Americans, they are going to create jobs for Americans, as foreign-born innovators have done for years. How much poorer would we be as a country if people like Andy Grove, who received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and whose vision and talent made Intel the company that it is today, had been forced to leave the country upon completing their studies?

There is yet another reason we should be doing everything we can to keep these students in the United States: the American people subsidized their educations. Many of the foreign-born graduates of our schools studied at universities which receive significant public funding.

The fact is that we've invested a lot of resources over the years into building a higher education system that is the envy of the entire world, and because it is the envy of the entire world it attracts the best and the brightest students from around the world. That being the case, we should want to make it as easy as possible for those students who come out the other side of our higher education system with the most skills to stay. We should want them to become Americans.

In fact, it is a great testament to the singular level of opportunity available in the United States that so many of these foreign-born innovators have navigated our byzantine immigration system so that they can stay. But we cannot expect them to continue doing so indefinitely.

Unfortunately, our current immigration system practically begs them to go to our global economic competitors. It's like Microsoft spending years training a young employee, bringing them along at great effort and expense and then, just when that employee is ready to start paying dividends to the company, forcing them out the door to work for their competitor. That approach wouldn't make sense in the business world, and it doesn't work as national policy either.

We currently have the most talented workforce in the world, but we need to make sure that our education and immigration systems are working in concert to maintain and expand on that advantage. Passing the New American Innovators Act would mean more jobs, higher economic growth, and a better standard of living for all Americans.