My first reaction to the headlines about President Trump’s proposal to cut immigration in half was that it would be as disastrous as his Muslim ban. But after reading details of the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act (Raise Act), I can’t find a reason to be outraged. The legislation surely needs to be improved and the numbers of immigrants admitted increased, but it could be good for the country because it gives preference to the job-creators and professionals who have for too long taken a back seat in the debates about comprehensive immigration reform.
The president has proposed dramatic changes to U.S. immigration policy, shifting its focus from admitting family members to admitting people based on their skills, English-speaking ability, education, employability, age, achievement, and entrepreneurial initiative. At a news conference announcing the bill, Trump adviser Stephen Miller stressed that the families of present immigrants would be grandfathered in under the new rules but indicated that future immigrants would not be able to sponsor adult children or siblings unless they met the new requirements.
The restriction on families is by no means a good thing, but the focus on bringing in people who contribute to U.S. economic growth surely is. And as far as learning English goes, almost anyone anywhere can now download language-learning apps and watch videos on their smartphones; immigrants should come prepared.
The United States has been experiencing an exodus of highly skilled workers who were frustrated by an immigration system that put them at a disadvantage. This helped other countries gain a competitive advantage. Chinese Internet companies, such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent, are among the most innovative and valuable few such companies in the world. Chinese scientists are building advanced artificial-intelligence and gene-editing technologies. Indian engineers are launching sophisticated rockets and creating new platforms for digital currencies. And if you look at the “unicorns,” technology startup firms valued at $1 billion or more, you see that China and India are home to one-third of them, although as recently as 2000, nearly all of them were in the United States, leaving other countries only dreaming of creating a Google, Amazon, or Facebook.
Most of these foreign research labs and companies have returnees from the United States in key leadership positions. My research team at Duke and Harvard documented that 52 percent of Silicon Valley’s startups before the immigrant exodus began had been founded by immigrants — and that U.S. immigration policies led this to fall to 44 percent. This was because we were admitting large numbers of workers and students on temporary visas such as the H-1B but not providing enough green cards. By my estimate, as many as 1.5 million skilled workers and their families are waiting for green cards in the United States today, but we admit only 120,000 workers every year in the top three employment-based categories of permanent-resident visas. So highly skilled workers are leaving.
We have been bleeding talent and boosting our global competition while arguing only about the plight of undocumented workers. It makes sense to solve the relatively easy problems first and then address the ultra-contentious issues of illegal immigration.
The proposal that Trump presented is supposedly based on the merit-based immigration systems of Canada and Australia and similar to what President George W. Bush had proposed in 2007 in a comprehensive immigration-reform bill that didn’t make it through the Senate. The same debates are likely to break out again, with political leaders on both sides objecting to the exclusion of legal, low-skilled immigrants, who are crucial to the economies of states such as South Carolina.
We need both skilled and unskilled workers, as well as musicians and artists, and one way to resolve the issue may be to expand temporary-visa programs for low-skilled workers and to value soft skills more highly in the new system. Of critical importance also is to provide permanent residency to the more than 1 million undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. Of these, 750,000 received work permits and deportation relief through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that President Barack Obama created. Their security in being able to remain is a human rights issue and, as I have previously written, concerns America’s very soul.
I expect the debates in the House and the Senate will lead to significant improvements in the Raise Act, though its passage is far from guaranteed. But with the new focus on skilled immigration, the president has made an important change to the subject of the debate. U.S. immigration is badly in need of modernization. Visas such as the diversity visa, which Trump is also seeking to eliminate, made sense a few decades ago when the United States truly did lack diversity, but today the most important challenge is for the United States to maintain its global competitiveness — and create new jobs for Americans. This is what immigration can do.
Vivek Wadhwa is Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley. His is also author of The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.