A green card for every diploma: How to keep highly skilled workers where they are needed


Most of the time when politicians or the media discuss immigration reform, it’s in the context of low-skill immigrants. It’s in the context of a problem that must be managed: What should America do about the nearly 15 million illegal immigrants within its borders? What is this nation willing to invest on border security to ensure that number doesn’t grow further? Can enough roadblocks to the good life be laid that immigrants will “self-deport”?

Left out of reform discussion, more often than not, are the high-skill, college-educated immigrants who would like to stay in America but are instead forced to return to Lahore, Pakistan, or Mumbai, India, American degree in-hand.

But these are the immigrants America needs most to embrace. While some immigrants find their niche in doing the jobs most Americans won’t do — home labor, garden work — high-skilled immigrants are needed because they can take the jobs many Americans can’t — science, technology, engineering and mathematic.

The National Science Foundation has declared America’s difficulties training an adequate number of scientists as the country’s “pressing challenge.” “We don’t have time to wait for a ’21st Century Sputnik,’ that will focus attention on these critical needs,” one NSF report declared, referring to the Russian satellite, the first to go into orbit in 1957. This caused America to invest heavily in science education. Just over a decade after Sputnik launched, America would win the “space race” by sending the first man to the moon with the help of plenty of foreign-born scientists.

President Barack Obama has famously called for a “Sputnik moment,” and would like to spend 3 percent of the federal budget on science education and research. But while efforts to prepare Americans for the technology-driven jobs of the 21st century should be made, it may be more efficient to turn highly skilled foreign students into Americans than turn Americans into scientists.

Unfortunately, the Democrats who control the U.S. Senate disagree, killing the House GOP’s STEM Jobs Act earlier this month. The STEM Jobs Act would’ve scrapped an archaic system that prevents any country from contributing more than 7 percent of America’s immigrant pool that year and set aside some 55,000 green cards annually for foreigners, regardless of home country, who hold advanced science and technology degrees from American colleges and universities.

America has always been a nation of immigrants. And these are the immigrants who can make the biggest impact on the economy. While we send home thousands a year, countries like Australia are trying to recruit them. And for people who call China and India home, there’s never been a better time to return. Never has the competition for skilled minds been more fierce. It’s time America do more to win it.

Politically, one understands why the White House and Senate Democrats wouldn’t want to concede the high road on immigration reform, which they gained during the election when Obama offered, via executive order, limited amnesty to immigrants who’d been in America most of their lives. This is a reform Republicans had supported, but retreated from after Obama acted unilaterally.

If fiscal cliff negotiations have been any indicator, compromises won’t be easy to reach in Washington any time soon. So when the two parties have a chance to come together in a way that will make America more prosperous and competitive, they should. Whether the STEM Jobs Act passes now or in the new year makes little difference. But it should pass. Indeed, this is the sort of legislation Obama should be demanding on his desk. Fortunately, he just so happens to be friendly with the Democrats who control the Senate.