Keeping the best and the brightest

Published 2:55 am Sunday, May 8, 2011

There’s at least one issue that President Obama and conservative House Republicans can agree on — making it easier for foreign-born grad students to stay in this country and contribute to our economic growth.

The United States will not prosper by making toys or textiles cheaper than Botswana or Bangladesh. It will only thrive by leading the world in technological innovation, by creating the next iPad or building the best electronic car or hybridizing the most productive seeds.

But ideas have no boundaries. Innovators can work anywhere. We are in a highly competitive race to attract and retain the best young minds from around the globe. And we are in danger of losing because of wrongheaded, self-defeating immigration policies that require a drastic overhaul. During his town-hall meeting at Facebook recently, Obama emphasized this point: “If we’ve got smart people who want to come here and start businesses and are Ph.D.s in math and science and computer science, why don’t we want them to stay? I mean, why would we want to send them someplace else?”

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Why, indeed? But that is exactly what’s happening. America’s mistreatment of “smart people” from other countries is a scandal.

There are two separate but related issues here. The first involves H-1B visas, temporary work permits granted to foreigners in specialized fields like computer science, health and engineering. These visas are arbitrarily limited to 65,000 a year (an additional 20,000 are available to holders of advanced American degrees).

The high-tech sector, led by Bill Gates and Microsoft, has long argued for much higher limits, and just recently, two of the key players in the new Republican-run House have weighed in on the issue.

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said H-1B visas play a “vital role” in the economy and called for an increase in the cap. And Rep. Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, cited the H-1B limit in arguing that “there seems to be little doubt that federal policies and regulations have played a large role in hampering growth.”

Holders of H-1B visas can apply for a “green card,” which grants permanent residency. But there is such a “huge backlog” (Obama’s words) in processing those applications, many foreigners get discouraged and move to other countries, which capitalize on our stupidity by offering much better and faster deals.

Accordingly, there is talk in Washington about bypassing the H-1B process entirely and offering green cards directly to promising postgraduates. Bruce Morrison, a former congressman who now lobbies for a high-tech trade association, told a recent hearing: “Giving American employers enough green cards to hire new Americans means more jobs for Americans.”

So if the benefits of retaining “smart people” are so obvious, what’s the holdup? For one thing, there are 12 million undocumented workers living here illegally. Some immigration reformers won’t help high-tech workers unless the illegal problem is resolved at the same time, an ill-advised strategy that leads to paralysis on everything.

More important, the unions and their allies on the left continue to argue that foreign workers displace Americans and drive down wages. But that’s simply not true. There are not enough native-born Americans to staff the high-tech sector. A recent report by the TechAmerica Foundation showed that a sizable majority of recent doctorates in math (54 percent), computer science (60 percent) and engineering (65 percent) went to foreign-born grad students.

“Unfortunately,” says Josh James, the foundation’s vice president, “the United States educates the world’s best and brightest and then tells them to go home, to compete against us.”

As Obama noted at the Facebook town hall, the critics have it exactly wrong. Those foreigners we are educating “are potential job creators … job generators.” They don’t hurt American workers; they help them — through their ideas, their energy and their entrepreneurial spirit.

As an example, the president cited Andy Grove, who was born in Hungary and earned engineering degrees from City College in New York and the University of California, Berkeley. He became the third employee of a struggling start-up called Intel, which he helped transform into one of the world’s largest manufacturers of microprocessors.

“We want more Andy Groves here in the United States,” Obama said, and he’s exactly right. Hopefully, with Republican help, he’ll be able to change the law and make it easier for the next generation of Andy Groves to live and work, to dream and create, here in their adopted homeland.

(Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah” (HarperCollins), has just been published. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at