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Miller Center Panel: Immigration Reform Needed if U.S. to Compete in Global Battle for Talent, Ideas

Caplin Conference Keynote Roundtable: “High Skilled Immigration: Pathways to Progress”

On December 7, the Miller Center convened the 2012 Mortimer Caplin Conference on the World Economy at our offices in Washington, DC and at the National Press Club. Representatives from the academy, the government, and the private sector engaged in serious discussions about the true impact of current immigration provisions on American competitiveness, how proposals for high-skilled admissions can meet the needs of the U.S. economy, what effect such proposals might have on other policy goals (such as encouraging U.S. students to enter STEM fields), how those trade-offs should be managed, and the extent to which specific proposals serve national interests or instead primarily benefit particular industries or employers. 

The concluding panel at the National Press Club featured University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, United States Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), and Founder and former CEO of AOL Steve Case. The panel was moderated by Alan Murray, Deputy Managing Editor and Executive Editor of The Wall Street Journal online edition and President of Pew Research Center (beginning January 2013). As Murray noted in his introduction, immigration is one issue that changed on the national landscape in the wake of the election. The outcome of the election has shaken up the politics and created the possibility for some movement on immigration legislation.

Steve Case noted that it is worth remembering that the nation was once a start-up. We didn’t become the leading economy by accident. It was the work of entrepreneurs who created companies and built the economy. In the history of the nation, the work of the risk-taking, pioneering entrepreneurs to help build this country is often overlooked. Case said the good news is that the U.S. is still the world’s most entrepreneurial nation. The bad news is that other nations have figured out that “the secret sauce” to a successful economy is an entrepreneurial economy. Other countries have modified their policies to become more entrepreneurial. Australia, for example, allows ten times more entrepreneurial visas. We are engaged in a global battle for talent, capital and ideas. Detroit rose on an idea propelled by entrepreneurs and fell when it lost its way. As a country, if we don’t change course, we will also fall. The issue of talent is central – as the old truism goes, an organization is only as good as it’s people. Case expressed frustration that we’ve been talking about high skilled reform for at least a decade. We have to do something quickly. Immigration should be less of a debate about a problem and more of a debate about opportunity.

Senator Warner argued that we need talent to compete in the world and that’s why we need high-skilled immigration reform. He noted there is a dearth of American born graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM fields).  In China, 44% of graduates have a STEM field degree, 37% of Koreans do, and 24% of Europeans. In comparison, only 16% of students in America graduate with a STEM field degree. These are the key fields that drive innovation. Senator Warner recognized that we need to prime the pump of American born citizens, but we also need to attract talent from around the world. We can do that through changing our visa policies. He argued that we should at least start with graduate students – if you graduate and have a job awaiting you, we will give you a green card. Senator Warner also argued that we need to revise our antiquated H1-B visa policies. Those who get these visas essentially become indentured servants to the companies through which they obtain these work permit visas. This has the effect of restricting entrepreneurship. We also need an entrepreneur visa.

Teresa Sullivan was recently on an NRC panel that made ten recommendations to Congress on immigration reform. Sullivan noted that UVA has had a 60% increase in applications from foreign students in the last three years alone, largely fueled by Chinese students. The U.S. benefits if they stay in America to work after they graduate. Sullivan argued that current policies are too burdensome for students and scholars. The NRC panel recommended that the visa processing process should be made as efficient as possible while ensuring national security. In addition, the process for graduate researchers who obtain a doctorate here to receive a green card should be streamlined.

Watch the video for the full discussion of prospects for high-skilled immigration reform.

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