Image by Tristan Reville, used under Creative Commons license
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free... I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
- EMMA LAZARUS
Immigrant-turned-billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk already made an indelible mark on America. He blazed trails in finance with PayPal and in transportation with Tesla. And if he has his way, SpaceX will take us to Mars.
Musk is a risk-taker and game-changer, and his journey underscores the power of the American immigrant. But unless Congress acts to expand the number of temporary work visas for immigrants, the U.S. could lose its vitality as a nation of immigrants.
Too many qualified foreign students are sent home after graduation. Indeed the gap between student and temporary employment visa issuances has widened extensively over the past decade.
It is a story of demand and supply. While the quota of temporary work visas has been stagnant for the past decade, demand for student visas more than doubled. There just aren't enough temporary work visas.
Musk's story illustrates what is possible when immigrants that come to the U.S. are allowed to stay in the country. Indeed he was the inspiration for Jon Favreau's movie version of Iron Man, beloved by millions of Americans. Born and raised in South Africa, Musk has said he felt American from an early age.
"I am nauseatingly pro-American," he said "I would have come here from any country. The U.S. is where great things are possible."
Musk studied physics and business at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1990s. Having entered the country on a student visa, he obtained a temporary work visa after graduation from Penn. About a decade after arriving to the New World he was sworn in as an American citizen.
Musk's mission upon graduation was to tackle what he perceived as the world's biggest challenges: the Internet, sustainable transportation and space. PayPal has made online transactions fast, secure and broadly available. With Tesla, he made electric cars viable, and with SpaceX rockets reusable. In the process, he created thousands of jobs for Americans.
The U.S., no longer the only land of opportunity, will need to do more to keep the energy and creativity of tomorrow's immigrants. With economic competition across the globe as never before the U.S. can no longer afford the luxury of rejecting talented immigrants.
Historian Niall Ferguson calls this shift the end of 500 years of Western predominance. In less than a decade, China may overtake the United States as the world's largest economy.
The greatest trump card the U.S. still has is the world's best higher education system. Students from around the world aspire to study here. But those students will not contribute to the U.S. economy if they are forced to leave.
"We need to take a look at our immigration laws," Musk said at the annual conference of the U.S. Export-Import Bank. "We really don't want to send them home."
Dave Munichiello, Partner at Google Ventures, said that among the entrepreneurs he invests in, immigrants have made for particularly strong candidates. Through the challenges immigrants face, they develop drive, resiliency and a strong work ethic.
Google was co-founded by Sergey Brin, who was born in Moscow to Russian Jewish parents. He immigrated with his family to the United States when he was six years old. The biological father of Steve Jobs was Syrian. Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, was born in Paris to Iranian parents.
Venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers reported that 60% of the top 25 tech companies were founded by 1st or 2nd generation Americans. In total, they created $577 million of revenue in 2013 and employed around 1.2 million people.
Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway, says that the U.S., unlike any other nation, has developed a system that unlocks human potential. If the U.S. wants to keep its vitality and economic strength, it needs to unlock the human potential of its future immigrants.