Let’s hope Congress does not flinch as it begins the debate about immigration reform because the future is passing through security – in the wrong direction. It leaves the United States on every departing airplane carrying a foreign born student who has graduated from an American university with an advanced degree in the sciences, technology, engineering and math. The majority of these people want to stay in the United States but because of existing immigration laws, they have no choice but to leave.
In Silicon Valley, which has always been blind to any attribute other than ability, everyone knows that the remarkable achievements of the foreign born have led to the formation of companies such as Google, Intel, Sun Microsystems, nVidia, Yahoo! PayPal and scores of others that are less well known. Of the last eleven early stage companies that have allied themselves with Sequoia Capital, seven have had immigrants among their founding lineup. This is not a sudden or recent phenomenon; it has been the leitmotif of our business since the 1970s. However, the number of startups would be even higher if we weren’t ejecting foreign-born students and if we welcomed their contemporaries who have been educated overseas. Today, it is impossible to satisfy Silicon Valley’s appetite for engineers and scientists with people born in America.
The xenophobia underlying current immigration policy has three consequences for the U.S. technology industry. First, the know-how for all sorts of new companies is being expelled from America. Second, it makes it even harder to fill the job vacancies at existing U.S. based semiconductor, biotech, networking and software companies. Third, it means that University labs, which have sown the seeds for so many commercial breakthroughs of the past seventy-five years, are deprived of the young faculty members who can be counted on for bursts of inspiration and originality. In the massive global IQ competition, the United States is shooting itself in the foot.
Today – while the Internet has made it simple for companies to identify the most capable prospects anywhere in the world – it is harder than ever to obtain the necessary paperwork. At Stripe, a young payments company in San Francisco (where I am a Board Member), the founders are a pair of Irish brothers, the senior business executive was born in Honduras and 14 of its 23 engineers were born outside the United States. Stripe’s engineering department would be at least twice as large if we could get working papers for the programmers we are eager to hire. Unless we do something quickly, our nation’s hiring problem will get more acute as U.S. educational standards continue to decline while they improve elsewhere.
Other countries are making it easier, not harder, for talented immigrants to enter. Canada will kickoff a ‘Startup Visa’ program in April and its Immigration Minister has vowed to come to California to tell foreign entrepreneurs and engineers that they can gain permanent citizenship north of the border. Even Chile – in its effort to compete for highly educated immigrants with other countries such as Singapore and Israel – has a special visa program to lure programmers.
This year, three in ten students at MIT and four of every ten of its graduate students are either not U.S. citizens or permanent residents. These ratios are echoed at the best engineering and medical schools in the country. Our universities brim with opportunity for America and it would only take a few modest tweaks to improve the situation. This is a case where a small number of people bring a disproportionate benefit to millions.
In 2010 – the most recent year for which data is available – U.S. universities awarded doctorates to about 13,000 students in all disciplines. (The largest number study in California, New York and Texas.) This is a tiny proportion of the roughly 1.1 million people who were granted legal residency each year between 2009 and 2011.
In the immigration debate that’s getting underway it would be useful to consider a few things. It would be wonderful to provide foreign-born students with advanced degrees in STEM subjects from U.S. universities a clear path to permanent residency. It would be good to massively increase the percentage of green cards given to foreigners with advanced degrees and special skills. And it would also make a big difference if the per country caps on green cards were removed.
The United States is still luring and educating many of the best and the brightest from foreign countries. We just must keep them. We also need to make it easier for their soul mates who have been educated overseas to pass through security – in the right direction.
originally published on LinkedIn