As Washington Ignores High-Skill Immigration Debate, US Suffers

By William R. Kerr

Posted on October 18, 2018


U.S. innovation is driven in no small part by high-skill immigrants. In 1975, one out of every 12 inventors living in the U.S. was foreign born. Now, it is one out of every 3.5. These facts and the many other benefits immigration provides have been forgotten as the midterms approach. High-skill immigration has disappeared from the debate.


This is dangerous for America’s long-term prosperity.


Many take our leadership in attracting global talent for granted. They assume high-skill immigrants will always want to come to the U.S. to found the next Google or eBay – companies both built by immigrants.


This thinking is stuck in the 1990s. The competition is today much stronger. The U.S. now faces a decision with global consequences: Will it continue to be the indisputable world leader in attracting talent, or will it squander the precious gift it has been given?


The demographic trends facing the U.S. are powerful. By 2030, China and India will be home to 50 percent of the world’s young (aged 25-34) college graduates and 60 percent of young STEM-degree holders. This is a radical shift from even 2005, when the substantial majority of young college graduates lived in OECD countries.


Rather than stepping up our game, however, we keep shooting ourselves in the foot with self-defeating rhetoric and misaligned policies. Many talented foreign students come to the U.S. to study and hope to stay for work. But they are leaving the country in droves after earning their degrees, deploying their knowledge and skills outside of America. The U.S. immigration system does not retain this talent effectively, and recent decisions have made the system worse.


The H-1B system, a primary avenue for high-skill immigrants to come to the U.S., has not meaningfully changed since its inception in the early 1990s, even though our economy has grown substantially. Every year, the volume of applications vastly outstrips the annual supply of visas in just the first week. This needlessly kneecaps our ability to bring in high-skill workers and retain bright students.


The Trump administration’s recent actions on H-1B visas – which include denying applications at an elevated rate and making it more perilous to navigate the process – make it even harder for companies to bring in high-skill workers. They also harm America’s image in the eyes of those we seek to attract. This impact is already clear. MBA applications by foreign students – an admittedly crude, but still useful, indicator of how young high-skill individuals view the US’ attractiveness – have dropped significantly over the past year.


This is not to say high-skill immigration does not have issues.


Our broken system allocates employment visas very inefficiently—opponents and supporters of immigration can at least agree that we should utilize our visas in the most effective way possible. Our failure to do so deprives us of the best talent and can harm Americans, through the displacement of older tech workers or the outsourcing of U.S. jobs.


These, however, are fixable problems. Visas can be better distributed and abuses curbed through legislative and administrative action. But getting there is becoming a tougher mountain to climb because of the current conversation around high-skill immigration.


High-skill immigration should not be a toxic topic. As the U.S. moves further towards a knowledge and tech-driven economy, we can’t stick our head in the sand. Public leaders considering a fact-based case for high-skill immigration is more important than ever. It is the one way that we can work towards maximizing the benefits of high-skill migration, while also ensuring the gains are better shared across the country than they have been to date.


Corporations that benefit greatly from high-skill immigration – especially tech firms – also have a role to play, beyond speaking out to support high-skill visas. They must make the case to the wider public, to the voters, for why this kind of immigration should be encouraged and how it will positively impact those who don’t live in talent clusters like Silicon Valley. Economic arguments only go so far. In the end, migration will be governed by political choices.


The U.S. has been given an exceptional gift and stewardship in the form of global talent. Unfortunately, through complacency, bad decisions, and an unwillingness to have this critical conversation, our edge is becoming blunter by the day. Talented people abroad are waiting for our next move, but they won’t wait forever.



William R. Kerr is a professor at Harvard Business School, where he co-leads the school’s Managing the Future of Work project and podcast. His new book, The Gift of Global Talent, was released on October 2nd.



The preceding is republished on TAP with permission by its author, Harvard business professor William R. Kerr. “As Washington Ignores High-skill Immigration Debate, US Suffers” was original published September 29, 2018 on The Hill.



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  • William R. Kerr
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