Economic Development, Government, and Small Business & Startups

Do immigration barriers stifle entrepreneurship and our vital STEM workforce?

January 28, 2013
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Do immigration barriers stifle entrepreneurship and our vital STEM workforce?
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Immigration is now the talk of top politicians in D.C. — and for good reason. Our current immigration system is broken. And while we may not all agree on how to fix it, we all have roots in immigration, and we have all benefited from it. In fact, immigration’s benefits are more far reaching than you may realize.

Attracting and retaining talented immigrants is essential to our country — and Michigan’s — economic health. Welcoming immigrants and supporting their desires to live, work and contribute to our communities drives economic growth.

Simply put, immigrants create jobs. Talented immigrants have founded several of the most innovative businesses in the United States. You may have heard of some of them: Google, Intel, eBay. Many of America’s greatest brands — Apple, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, McDonald’s, Colgate — owe their origin to a founder who was an immigrant or the child of an immigrant.

And it’s not just a Silicon Valley phenomenon. Did you know that 33 percent of tech companies in Michigan were founded by immigrants? immigrants are more than twice as likely as native-born Americans to start a new business in cities such as Detroit and Cleveland, according to a report by the Partnership for a New American Economy.

In addition to job creation, many companies in the U.S. and Michigan are seeking highly skilled, highly educated employees to work in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Currently, there is a severe shortage of STEM workers in the U.S. workforce. You may be surprised to learn that right here in Michigan, companies like Nexteer Automotive reported difficulty finding qualified workers to fill 100 engineer openings, according to a 2011 STEM report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Foreign-born individuals represent half of all U.S. graduate students in the fields of engineering, math and computer science. Approximately 17 percent of the U.S. STEM workforce is comprised of immigrants, including 25 percent in life and physical sciences and 18 percent in computer occupations, according to the report. These individuals will invent new products, launch new product lines, develop the technologies of tomorrow and help create new jobs.

A popular myth promoted by anti-immigrant groups is that foreign-born STEM workers take STEM jobs away from U.S. workers and that U.S. STEM workers are being driven from STEM occupations, because immigrants are willing to accept lower wages.

U.S. workers with STEM degrees are being recruited into non-STEM occupations where their skills and STEM backgrounds are in high demand and where the salaries are higher, according to the report. This diversion “will continue and likely accelerate in the future,” causing “an increasing reliance on foreign-born STEM talent among American employers,” according to the report.

The Georgetown University report projects that by 2018, there will be 2.4 million job openings for STEM workers. U.S. businesses will not be able to fill these openings with U.S. graduates alone. It is imperative that our companies are able to access, attract and retain highly skilled and talented foreign professionals for these critical jobs.

What you may not be aware of — because it doesn’t make sexy news headlines — is that too many obstacles exist in our current U.S. immigration system, discouraging and even outright preventing immigrant entrepreneurs and highly skilled talent from coming to and/or staying in the U.S., including Michigan.

Unfortunately, when it comes to employment-based immigration, we are firmly mired in a culture of "no" at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Service Centers and many U.S. embassies around the world. Rather than facilitating a path for immigrant entrepreneurs and investors to come to the U.S. and create jobs for U.S. workers — which, by the way, is a legal requirement for most of these entrepreneurs and investors — our government is turning qualified individuals away. The same phenomenon is occurring when employers try to access and retain highly educated and skilled foreign nationals to fill positions for which they cannot find qualified U.S. workers.

Still skeptical? Then let common sense be your guide: Why would U.S. employers invest the money in significant mandatory government filing fees and immigration attorney fees and put up with lengthy adjudication delays and the possibility of an application denial — if they could simply fill these positions with available U.S. workers?

Our current immigration system is simply outdated. There is presently a lack of temporary and permanent visa options for immigrant entrepreneurs, investors and professional STEM workers.

Certain countries, such as India and China, are unable to apply under the E-2 treaty investor visa category. The EB-5 permanent residence program requires investment of $1 million under its direct EB-5 program and $500,000 under its Regional Center program.

Despite the high mandatory investment amounts and risk involved for the immigrant investors, even clearly approvable applications face a ridiculous level of scrutiny at USCIS, with low approval rates to date. The H-1B specialty occupation visa is capped at 65,000 slots per year, with only an additional 20,000 available for foreign nationals possessing U.S. master’s or other advanced degrees. Last fiscal year, the H-1B visas ran out two months after they became available. And did you know that many highly educated and valued foreign professionals legally working through our immigration system wait seven and even up to 10 years and beyond to attain green card status in the U.S.?

Some of our best and brightest are stuck in line, and it’s no surprise that we lose a significant number of such professionals to our global competitors in other countries, where the bulbs in the welcome sign aren’t burned out. These barriers directly undermine our ability to be competitive in this global economy and to encourage that investment and entrepreneurship we so desperately need in Michigan.

Are we truly ready and willing to be welcoming to immigrants? It is a question we can no longer afford to ignore.

Stay tuned for a continued exploration of immigration’s economic impact, the obstacles, and more importantly, solutions. 

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