Immigration revisited

Talented immigrants have been a feature of rock bands since the dawn of the classic rock era. Immigrant or multinational groups have included: The Band, Buffalo Springfield, and The Lovin’ Spoonful (all with Canadian-American co-founders); Queen (co-founded by Freddie Mercury from Zanzibar); and Kiss (co-founded by Gene Simmons from Israel)—not to mention many British-American bands like Fleetwood Mac and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Immigrants have brought different worldviews, cultural influences, and sometimes a distinct hunger and ambition to their bands—as they often do to any profession.

In the US, few would argue that immigrants have provided the engine of economic growth for the nation since its founding, from the farmers and merchants of colonial times to the industrial workers of the 19th and 20th century. But immigrants are in even greater need today—especially in science and technology—for the Innovation Economy of the 21st century.

From 1995 to 2005 a quarter of U.S. technology companies had a foreign-born co-founder, while many Silicon Valley successes—Google, Intel, Yahoo, Sun, eBay, PayPal, and YouTube, to name a few—were founded or co-founded by immigrants. (Imagine if the family of Sergey Brin—Google’s co-founder—had decided to stay in Moscow!) It’s no exaggeration to say that skilled immigrants are the biggest competitive advantage we have in the U.S.

But while 46% of foreign students in U.S. universities in 2011 were studying STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, math) only 15% of American students were. This disparity is typical of a longstanding problem: the U.S. is not generating sufficient homegrown technology talent.

It stands to reason our immigration policies should allow businesses to acquire the technology talent they need—especially as our educational infrastructure fails to keep pace with international competition (a topic for another occasion). It’s obviously in our best interest to encourage skilled immigrants to make their home here.

Yet there’s one problem. We’ve stopped doing that.

In fact our policies are keeping highly skilled immigrants out. There are limited numbers of temporary H-1B visas to go around, student visas expire upon graduation, and employment-based green cards are difficult to obtain in key categories.

What to do? For starters: streamline the immigration process and eliminate restrictions for immigrants who are educated and skilled in the STEM disciplines. They should be incentivized to start ventures in the US and given a fast track to permanent residency. Concerns about illegal immigrants should not interfere with immediately raising the cap on H-1B visas for legal immigrants with special skills.

Of course some are worried that immigrants will take jobs away from native-born Americans. But skilled immigrants have been able to start new businesses—and even new industries—that created jobs that didn’t exist before. It’s not a zero sum game. Skilled immigrants have helped expand the economic pie. (In fact, unskilled immigrant have also.)

This is not just a US issue. Most nations would do well to heed the conclusion of an Economist survey: ”The potential economic benefits to the world of liberalizing migration DWARF those from removing trade barriers” (my caps). It goes on to argue for policies that are “more selective, not more restrictive.”

As economist Richard Florida points out, what has made America strong is “our amazing ability to attract the world’s greatest scientists, engineers, and cultural entrepreneurs.” And that includes a few talented rock & rollers.

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    1. Yeah, it's not even cool to be an American anymore.

      We're the people who created reality TV, and are generally pigs.

      Glad we have imported rock and rollers and other geniuses to keep our economy afloat. I hope it does continue.

      Although if I were a smartie from abroad, I certainly would not move to CO.


    2. We're educating these world visitors at a fantastically high level--allowing them to take the place of a worthy American--and then sending these critical resources back to benefit their home nations while we gain nothing but unemployment for the displaced student.

      Either create a golden road here so these highly-trained treasures can contribute greatly to our society, or keep them the hell out so Americans who will stay here and keep the skills here for all our benefit can get the same training. One or the other. But the current system is insane. It's the worst of both worlds. Amazing how Washington always manages to achieve that.

  1. Thankfully I've managed to avoid reality TV for the last decade and have never watched more than a few seconds of American Idol and its clones (except for a YouTube clip of Susan Boyle's terrific performance). I'd watch WWE Smackdown before I'd watch AI.

  2. Ken: we already know that “keeping them out” won't work. Colleges, grad schools, and businesses would have to accept less promising candidates because, on average, home-grown applicants lack the knowledge/education (and often the hunger and drive) that foreign applicants have. (And even if we managed to completely transform American education, the time delay involved would kill us.) So with less qualified science students in our universities and less qualified technology professionals in our companies, there would be a downward spiral that would eventually consign us to a life of economic and cultural mediocrity.

    So, yes, we should create a “golden road here” for foreign students and workers. For starters, we should stop DISCOURAGING them from staying with administrative roadblocks.

  3. I think American music fans get foreign bands--especially the Brit bands, but they forget about all the Graham Nashes and Sam the Sham (well he might have been second gen but still) and all the Canadian female vocalists--a ton especially in country-pop. Kenny Chesney. So many artists we think of as native but aren't.

  4. Yeah, I tend to focus on bands but there have been scores of individual rock/pop/folk/country stars in the US who came from Canada, such as Joni Mitchell, Paul Anka, k.d. lang, Alanis Morissette.

  5. We have two kids. Both major in STEM areas - but they attend university in the UK where it is cheaper and they are getting their B.S. in 3 v. 4 years (the reduction in years is because there are no general ed. requirements in the UK program - it is 3 yrs. of YOUR MAJOR.) They are planning to work in the U.S.

    My husband is in IT and consistently reports the best people are foreigners. They still want to come. So your point is well made.

    Perhaps business should focus more on continuing ed. for American kids who don't make the grade?

  6. Great strategy with your kids, Gerri: cheaper and faster — plus exposure to a different culture.

    I meant to say earlier that it's not a total loss when highly skilled immigrants study in the US then return to their native countries to work. Tens of thousands of professionals are thereby exposed to Western democratic values—not to mention U.S. products. (And that includes Lady Gaga, whom the Chinese authorities are having fits dealing with.)

  7. Good piece, John. You could probably cross out "America" and substitute "UK" or "Canada" or "Germany" or any other major developed nation because you've identified a problem that is vexing democratic governments all over the world. And all those countries have people who feel that foreign students are taking places a native could or should have.

    I don't agree with that particular line but let's look at the teaching: are all the lecturers and researchers nationals? I'd bet not. And they'll be poring over research from all round the world. So the argument seems to be: we'll pull in the best brains from around the world and we'll look out for the best ideas in order to create this teaching establishment ... but we'll limit student places to nationals.

    But this also prompts a musical thought. A lot of bands are gangs: they're groups of kids who have grown up close to each other and who get together in an, "Us against the world" way. How many truly great bands can you think of where there was an "outsider" member? I can't think of that many. There's Queen you've noted. And Levon Helm of The Band was the only American in a group of Canadians. After that?

    Maybe that's why bands usually die or go stale quickly: they don't have the outsider influence to challenge them and broaden their views.

  8. Fair points, Mark. In the early classic rock era most bands were pretty homogenous nationality-wise, but that started to change in the 70s (with Eric Burdon’s War and others). I also forgot to mention that The Jimi Hendrix Experience (the first racially diverse supergroup) had 2 Brits in it, and The Velvet Underground had German singer Nico.

    But even in the 60s and early 70s you had members of the “extended team” (record company executives, producers, managers) who were foreign-born, like Turkish-American Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records who signed, advised, and championed some amazingly electic bands, such as Buffalo Springfield, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, and Yes. Ertegun’s worldly tastes undoubtedly enabled him to hear things as a talent scout that others missed.

    Of course rock bands now are frequently multinational. There’s even a TERRIFIC American bluegrass group, The Greencards, that was founded by two Aussies and a Brit — and now includes two Americans. And when you have a competitive differentiator like that, it’s smart to exploit it in your name.

    Ok, now that I’ve finally heard from you, Mark, I can start to think about my next post…

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