If there’s one fact that Americans take for granted, it’s that other people want to live here. As President Barack Obama noted in his speech on immigration earlier this week, the U.S. has always attracted strivers from every corner of the globe, often willing to risk great hardships to get here.
During the 20th century especially, America became a magnet for the bright and ambitious. Millions of talented foreigners, from Alfred Hitchcock to Sergey Brin, flocked to our universities and benefited from our financial capital and open culture.
There are signs, however, that the allure of America is fading. A new study by researchers at U.C. Berkeley, Duke and Harvard has found that, for the first time, a majority of American-trained entrepreneurs who have returned to India and China believe they are doing better at “home” than they would be doing in the U.S. The numbers weren’t even close: 72% of Indians and 81% of Chinese said “economic opportunities” were superior in their native countries.
Some of the local advantages cited by these global entrepreneurs were predictable: cheap labor and low operating costs. What’s more worrisome is that these business people also cited the optimistic mood of their homelands. To them, America felt tapped out, but their own countries seem full of potential. This might also help to explain why the number of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. has plunged more than 60% since 2005.
These trends are troubling because they threaten to undermine a chief competitive advantage of the U.S. Though politicians constantly pay lip service to the importance of American innovation, they often fail to note that it is driven in large part by first-generation immigrants.
Consider some recent data. The U.S. Patent Office says immigrants invent patents at roughly double the rate of non-immigrants, which is why a 1% increase in immigrants with college degrees leads to a 15% rise in patent production. (In recent years, immigrant inventors have contributed to more than a quarter of all U.S. global patent applications.) These immigrants also start companies at an accelerated pace, co-founding 52% of Silicon Valley firms since 1995. It’s no accident that immigrants founded or co-founded many of the most successful high-tech companies in America, such as Google, Intel and eBay.
Why is immigration so essential for innovation? Immigrants bring a much-needed set of skills and interests. Last year, foreign students studying on temporary visas received more than 60% of all U.S. engineering doctorates. (American students, by contrast, dominate doctorate programs in the humanities and social sciences.)
These engineering students drive economic growth. According to the Department of Labor, only 5% of U.S. workers are employed in fields related to science and engineering, but they’re responsible for more than 50% of sustained economic expansion (growth that isn’t due to temporary or cyclical factors). These people invent products that change our lives, and in the process, they create jobs.
But the advantages of immigration aren’t limited to those with particular academic backgrounds. In recent years, psychologists have discovered that exposing people to different cultures, either through travel abroad or diversity in their hometown, can also make them more creative. When we encounter other cultures we become more willing to consider multiple interpretations of the same thing. Take leaving food on one’s plate: In China, it’s often a compliment, signaling that the host has provided enough to eat. But in America it can suggest that the food wasn’t good.
People familiar with such cultural contrasts are more likely to consider alternate possibilities when problem-solving, instead of settling for their first answer. As a result, they score significantly higher on tests of creativity. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that many of the most innovative places in the world, such as Silicon Valley and New York City, are also the most diverse.
We need a new immigration debate. In recent years, politicians have focused on border control and keeping out illegal immigrants. That’s important work, of course. But what’s even more important is ensuring that future inventors want to call America home.
14 May 2011
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Why America Needs Immigrants
Posted on May 16, 2011