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Why Immigrants Can Drive the Green Economy

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Raymond Spencer, an Australian‐born entrepreneur based in Chicago, has a window on the future--and a gusto for investing after founding a high‐technology consulting company that sold for more than $1 billion in 2006. "I have investments in maybe 10 start‐ups, all of which fall within a broad umbrella of a 'green' theme," he said.

"And it's interesting, the vast majority are either led by immigrants or have key technical people who are immigrants."

It should come as no surprise that immigrants will help drive the green revolution. America's young scientists and engineers, especially the ones drawn to emerging industries like alternative energy, tend to speak with an accent.

The 2000 Census found that immigrants, while accounting for 12 percent of the population, made up nearly half of the all scientists and engineers with doctorate degrees. Their importance will only grow. Nearly 70 percent of the men and women who entered the fields of science and engineering from 1995 to 2006 were immigrants.

Yet, the connection between immigration and the development and commercialization of alternative energy technology is rarely discussed. Policymakers envision millions of new jobs as the nation pursues renewable energy sources, like wind and solar power, and builds a smart grid to tap it.

But Dan Arvizu, the leading expert on solar power and the director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy in Golden, Colorado, warns that much of the clean‐technology talent lies overseas, in nations that began pursuing alternative energy sources decades ago.

The 2000 Census found that immigrants, while accounting for 12 percent of the population, made up nearly half of the all scientists and engineers with doctorate degrees. Their importance will only grow.

Expanding our own clean‐tech industry will require working closely with foreign nations and foreign‐born scientists, he said. Immigration restrictions are making collaboration difficult. His lab's efforts to work with a Chinese energy lab, for example, were stalled due to U.S. immigration barriers.

"We can't get researchers over here," Arvizu, the son of a once‐undocumented immigrant from Mexico, said in an interview in March 2009, his voice tinged with dismay. "It makes no sense to me. We need a much more enlightened approach."

Dr. Zhao Gang, the Vice Director of the Renewable Energy and New Energy International Cooperation Planning Office of the Ministry of Science and Technology in China, says that America needs that enlightenment fast. "The Chinese government continues to impress upon the Obama administration that immigration restrictions are creating major impediments to U.S.‐China collaboration on clean energy development," he said during a recent speech in Cleveland.

So what's the problem? Some of it can be attributed to national security restrictions that impede international collaboration on clean energy. But Arvizu places greater weight on immigration barriers, suggesting that national secrecy is less important in the fast‐paced world of green‐tech development. "We are innovating so fast here, what we do today is often outdated tomorrow.

Finding solutions to alternative energy is a complex, global problem that requires global teamwork," he said.

We need an immigration system that prioritizes the attraction and retention of scarce, high‐end talent needed to invent and commercialize alternative energy technology and other emerging technologies.

One idea we floated by Arvizu was a new immigrant "Energy Scientist Visa," providing fast‐track green cards for Ph.D.s with the most promising energy research, as reviewed by a panel of top U.S. scientists. Arvizu enthusiastically responded, "Wow, that's a brilliant idea."

As the recent submission of the Startup Visa Act bill suggests, there's really no shortage of good ideas of leveraging immigration to jumpstart the economy. The challenge is getting the American people to understand that high‐skill immigration creates jobs, that the current system is broken, and that action is required now.

We need an immigration system that prioritizes the attraction and retention of scarce, high‐end talent needed to invent and commercialize alternative energy technology and other emerging technologies.

For more on this, check out our new piece: "Why Immigrants Can Drive the Green Economy: Need for New Policy, Vision and Story Telling."

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