|One native-born American, one (very) high-skilled immigrant.|
There is a puzzle in the American political economy that has me utterly baffled. Readers and fellow bloggers, I need your help to solve this puzzle. The question is: Who is the constituency holding back high-skilled immigration to the United States?
Few economists would argue that high-skilled immigration is not an undiluted positive for the American economy. In fact, it is one of the only sources of "low-hanging fruit" (as Tyler Cowen would put it) that we have left. Here's Annie Lowrey:
But maybe there remains one last shiny, fat apple hanging right in front of our faces, one last endeavor that would bring us fast, costless, and easy growth. It is immigration reform. The United States can grow faster by stealing the rest of the world's smart people.
[F]oreign-born entrepreneurs were at the helm of a full quarter of Silicon Valley start-ups founded between 1980 and 1998—start-ups like, say, Google. In 1998 alone, those companies created $17 billion in sales and accounted for 58,000 jobs.
Since then, the contributions of highly skilled immigrants—let's call them super-immigrants—have only grown...25.3 percent of engineering and technology start-ups opened between 1995 and 2005 had a foreign-born founder...Immigrant-founded companies across the country produced $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers...[I]mmigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a business than U.S.-born citizens. Immigrants with college degrees are three times as likely to file patents as the domestically born...Economist Jennifer Hunt of McGill estimates that the contributions of immigrants with college degrees increased the U.S.'s GDP per capita by between 1.4 and 2.4 percent in the 1990s.
For some reason, though, there exists a vast thicket of U.S. policies and practices that keep high-skilled immigrants out. H1-B visas are temporary, severely limited in number, and annoyingly hard to get. Our student visa program kicks foreign students out right after they finish. The number of "employment-based" green cards is capped at 140,000 a year, which heavily tilts our immigration policy toward family reunification and away from high-skilled immigration.
It goes without saying that this is nuts. By keeping these people out, our nation is shooting itself in the foot with a sawed-off shotgun.
But this raises a huge, looming question: Who or what is behind this insanity? Usually, when economists see such a gross and persistent miscarriage of policy, we look for a vested constituency that has successfully used the political process to block national efficiency in order to favor its own narrow interest. But, for the life of me, I can't figure out who is against high-skilled immigration.
It doesn't appear to be the political far right. Tea Partiers and the like are up in arms about immigration, but all of their animus is directed at low-skilled immigrants, particularly Mexicans. They are not marching in the streets or joining Minuteman squads because of Indian computer programmers.
Nor is it business conservatives. Check out this Wall Street Journal article by Jonah Lehrer, which basically echoes Lowrey (yes, I view the WSJ as a barometer of business-conservative opinion). Or read AEI calling for reform of our high-skilled immigration policy. After all, high-skilled immigrants are a huge boon to American business, which is why tech companies are always lobbying Congress (unsuccessfully) to increase the number of H1-B visas.
It isn't libertarians. Libertarians favor (relatively) open borders.
It doesn't seem to be the political left. Observe this article by David Altman in the Huffington Post, which used the term "super-immigrants" months before the Lowrey article, and basically says the same things (yes, I view the Huffington Post as a barometer of elite-liberal opinion). Liberals, after all, tend to favor a multicultural society. They also favor income equality, which high-skilled immigration tends to promote. Maybe Democrats are afraid that the children of entrepreneurial immigrants will vote Republican, but in recent years Asian-Americans have trended Democratic.
Is it the security state? Yes, the influx of foreign students and workers dropped off after 9/11, but has since recovered. It seems conceivable that the DHS and other arms of the security apparatus are paranoid about smart terrorists or Chinese spies. But I have not heard of the DHS lobbying to keep out high-skilled immigrants. Is this happening?
What about high-skilled native-born Americans? Are American-born computer programmers, engineers, and entrepreneurs afraid that high-skilled immigrants will take their jobs? I guess this is conceivable. I've heard some low-level grumbling from American-born engineers about the low wages and long hours that immigrant engineers are willing to accept, but I know of nothing even slightly resembling an organized movement or lobbying effort. And my guess is that smart Americans are smart enough to know that it's a positive-sum game - that the positive impact of the businesses started by smart immigrants vastly outweighs the effects of wage competition.
So who is it? Is there someone I'm forgetting here? Have I made a mistake in my analysis? Or is my instinct wrong - is it simple blind dumb institutional momentum, and not the diabolical actions of any special interest group, that is keeping world's geniuses shivering outside our tall iron gates? Is it simply that no one is paying attention? Help me out here, people. Help me understand why we have not yet picked this lowest of low-hanging fruit.
Update: E.G. at The Economist has an excellent post comparing Canada's attitude toward high-skilled immigrants to America's. All of the commenters who wrote that "we have enough smart people already" should read it.