Monday, October 8, 2012

US immigration policy blunting its high-tech edge?

The Chemist
High-tech is high-value
Photo by Jamesongravity
TechCrunch has an interesting article entitled For The First Time In Decades, US Is Bleeding High-Skilled Immigrants. The situation is very complicated, but much of it boils down to a Byzantine legal system for immigration. It's hard to get a work visa for the US and easy to lose it. On top of that, Republicans attempted to shift 55,000 US visas for immigrants from lesser-developed nations to foreign-born graduates of US universities. The idea being to ensure that high-skilled talent that studies in the US stays in the US. This makes sense as they're already likely to be more integrated into US culture.

Democrats have objected, claiming that Republicans are trying to shift visas from immigrants the Republicans don't want to immigrants they do want.

While I agree with the Democratic reasoning here, I'm unsure of how this is an indictment against Republicans. All developed nations control immigration tightly because they have to. Unrestricted immigration would overload the the social services of states and "low value" (in economic terms) immigrants are more likely to cost the state more money than they generate. Thus, "high value" immigrants are not only desired, but sought after. After all, they benefit an economy. The US, however, appears to be ignoring the benefits and focusing only on the costs.

Part of the problem is probably due to the anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping across much of the US. As a politician, it can be tough tackling immigration reform when many people would be happy to stop immigration. I've explained why importing workers in a bad economy is still often a good idea, but I doubt policy makers read this site. Further, given the current combative nature of US politics, I don't see a compromise happening any time soon.

There are other issues which are going to play into this long-term. The US PATRIOT Act has made US-based cloud services less popular outside of the US, hurting the ability of US cloud businesses to compete. Thanks to FATCA, "US persons" are now losing banking services abroad which, in turn, means that foreign businesses are now more reluctant to operate in the US market, a potential long-term drain on the US economy. It's going to be harder to attract high-tech talent when your economy is struggling and the cost of being a US person can mean lack of access to banking services in your home country.

And then we have the charming case of an immigrant to the US being imprisoned in Leavenworth for sending money home to this family. Regardless of whether or not you feel imprisoning him was justified, it's hard to argue that this will not have a chilling effect on other would-be immigrants to the US.

On top of that, EU countries are launching their European Blue Card programs in an attempt to attract more high-value immigrants. Though I initially speculated that it wasn't going to help the EU much, seeing the actual implementations has changed my mind. It's going to be much easier for many high-value workers to move to Europe. I've written before about how 5% of high-value workers go to Europe and 55% go to the US and I expect the combination of many factors is starting to shift the numbers to the EU. In this case, the US's loss will likely be the EU's gain.

Long-term it's even worse. The US cost of education has risen so dramatically that young Americans have gone from #1 worldwide in terms of having university degrees to #12. Thus, the US is not only less likely to import high-value workers, she's getting less likely to produce them. Of course, with almost half of Americans believing in the decidedly anti-science Creationist viewpoint, it's perhaps an uphill battle to promote the sciences in the US.

It seems that the deck is stacked against the US, but for the most part, the US has done the stacking.


  1. So, this leads me to the question: how much incredibly bad policy does it take to crash an economic juggernaut?

    The open, Melting-Pot mentality of the 1920s, which strengthened the US & set it up for success (& the American Dream now-myth) seems to have died. Inject First-past-the-post "Democracy", falling wages, lack of healthcare, & a widening gap between rich & poor... At what point does it break?

    The majority of people in this country are now disenfranchised in some way.

  2. but I doubt policy makers read this site

    I think it’s more an issue of whether their electorate reads this site, no? The issue seems to be whether the people who vote for them get it, not whether the politicians do – I don’t think the politicians are actually stupid. (Although Romney’s remarks may make reconsider…) I am not quite cynical enough to believe that every politician is a pure opportunist, but at this point it seems that for systemic reasons they might as well all be – that whether or not they sincerely believe in what they are doing does not matter.

    Which of course ties into the bottom line of your post

    1. Regarding politicians not actually being stupid, I assume you're familiar with Mato Nagel's study showing that voters choose mediocre candidates? (And a layman article).

    2. I was not, in fact. Congratulations, you just reduced my cynicism by upping my jadedness. (Swings and roundabouts.) Then again this finding ties right back into the systemic reasons I mentioned, so it’s not astonishing. But it only reinforces my point that the question is not whether policy makers read this site but whether their electorate does, no?