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.