July 29, 2004
Reaping the benefits of immigration policy
America is a nation of immigrants and its willingness to admit into our society individuals not born here generates controversy. Yet immigration continues to be crucial to America's future.
Simply put, if opponents of immigration had succeeded over the past 20 years, two-thirds of the most outstanding future American scientists and mathematicians would not be here today. U.S. policy would have barred their parents from entering the United States.
That is the finding of a new study from the National Foundation for American Policy. The study (to be published in International Educator and available at www.nfap.net) found that 60 percent of the finalists of the Intel Science Talent Search (24 of 40) and 65 percent of the U.S. Math Olympiad's top scorers (13 of 20) are the children of immigrants.
In addition, seven of the top 10 winners at the 2004 Intel Science Talent Search were immigrants or their children. Nearly a quarter of Intel Science Talent Search finalists' parents came to America as international students.
And while some argue that immigrants place new burdens on schools, one forgets that these children grow up to be key forces in our society.
Moreover, immigration is the crucial factor in determining whether labor-force growth in the United States rises or becomes stagnant. Parents of six of the 40 Intel Science Talent Search finalists, including three family-sponsored immigrants and two refugees, arrived through the general openness of the United States' immigration system.
Immigrants are self-selected, meaning those with the most ambition are the ones most likely to take a chance on coming to America. So it is not surprising that we see that drive, ambition and work ethic in their children.
The study found that among finalists of the 2004 Intel Science Talent Search, more children (18) have parents who entered the country on H-1B (professional) visas than parents born in the United States (16). (The same is true for Math Olympiad top scorers.).
To put this finding in perspective, new H-1B visa holders each year represent less than 0.04 percent of the U.S. population.
Today, half of all engineers with Ph.D.s working in the United States are foreign-born.
The irony is that, despite this data, both employment-based immigration and student-visa policy have faced new restrictions that threaten the flow of international students and highly-skilled professionals.
The recent 9/11 Commission report concluded that there remain areas to strengthen in our immigration system.
In doing so, it is essential we balance security needs, as well as lobbying from those affected by labor-market competition, with America's economic and technological future.
That future depends on openness toward people with talent, drive and determination.
The National Science Board, a U.S. government advisory body, warned recently that American leadership in science and technology is threatened by global competition.
Yet we should remain optimistic. When immigrants are allowed to come to the United States legally and stay, the nation also benefits.
The question is only whether America will maintain an immigration system that is open enough to attract and integrate that talent into U.S. society.
Stuart Anderson is Executive Director of the National Foundation for American Policy, an Arlington, Va.-based public policy research organization.