What’s missing in America’s immigration debate

By Karen Mills
Feb. 3, 2015
Fortune

A showdown is expected today in the U.S. Senate on a Homeland Security spending bill that would derail President Obama’s recent actions on immigration.
What seems lost in this “inside-the-Beltway” political fight is what the immigration debate should really be about. America is a nation of immigrants, but many seem to have forgotten — or maybe just don’t understand – how critical a vibrant immigrant community and a working immigration system are to the economic health of the U.S.

Today, immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to be entrepreneurs, according to data from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Additionally, in Silicon Valley, 44% of startups have at least one immigrant founder. And, 40% of all Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants or children of immigrants.

Yet we continue to be stymied when it comes to taking steps necessary to modernize the national immigration system that is so important to our economic future.

The immigration debate continues to be driven by politics instead of putting fact-based analysis at the forefront of our policies. In Washington, policy makers should be focused on the critical question of whether or not steps toward reform will actually grow the American economy and create jobs and prosperity, both for legal immigrants and native-born job seekers.

The discussion should include substantive considerations like:

  • Immigrants are filling engineering, computer science and other high-skilled jobs, and in doing so, helping create other jobs. A recent paper by Harvard Business School professor William Kerr showed firms that hired immigrants into high-skilled jobs through programs like the H1B visa program created additional jobs, including for non-immigrant workers.
  • The rate of new startups has been declining. A worrisome trend considering they are part of our economic formula for job creation. But, data from The Partnership for a New American Economy, and the SBA shows that immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business than native-born citizens.
  • Innovation is a key driver of our future economic growth. Interestingly, immigrants were involved in more than 75% of the nearly 1,500 patents awarded at the nation’s top 10 research universities in 2011. Yet, many foreign-born graduate students of these universities can’t stay in the country once they get their degree. As a result, they take their ideas to their home countries where some governments have established funds to help them bring their innovations to market.
  • Foreign-born workers over-index in maintenance, construction and manufacturing production jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They also play a critical role in our nation’s agriculture economy. There is critical demand for this workforce and employers continue to have trouble finding workers to fill many of these available jobs.

A crucial catalyst for the spirit and aspiration that drives the U.S. economy is the fact that throughout our history immigrants have come to the U.S. in pursuit of the American Dream. And, in doing so, they’ve created opportunities for themselves and countless other Americans.

Today, though, our immigration system is broken. And, no one is crying out for a fix more than America’s business community—on Main Street, Wall Street and Silicon Valley. They have made their case many times over, even in the current politically-charged dialogue.

Delta Airlines CEO Richard Henderson told “CBS This Morning” in November that his company supported President Obama’s recent initiatives on immigration, and immigration reform more broadly “because this problem needs to be solved,” pointing to the economic facts, his company’s competitive marketplace and the demand for a talented workforce.

And, Caterpillar CEO Douglas Oberhelman in December on CNBC laid out the stark reality of how our current system is working against our economic interests, noting that “We bring (immigrants) in here, we educate them, give them internships, co-ops, we send them back home. …Five years later, we see these same folks across the table from us with our competitors. I’d like to keep them here.”

The business community gets it. After years of debate and fact-based reasons for progress, Washington needs to finally make the changes that will create a fair and just immigration system and spur economic growth for our country and help drive prosperity for all Americans.

Karen Mills is a senior fellow with the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School focused on competitiveness, entrepreneurship and innovation, as well as vice chair of the board of the immigration services company VisaNow. She was a member of President Obama’s Cabinet, serving as Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration from 2009 to 2013.