Businessweek's Incomplete Analysis On The Effects Of Expanding High-Skilled Immigration

A Bloomberg Businessweek article pushed the myth that immigrants will take away jobs from high-skilled American workers. In fact, numerous studies show that highly skilled immigrants expand the number of jobs for all workers.

The article, titled “Immigration Reform May Make Your Job Search Much Tougher,” makes the case that if immigration reform passes in its current form, high-skilled immigrants would compete with American workers, making it potentially more difficult for Americans to find jobs in some high-skilled markets. Neil Ruiz, an immigration expert at Brookings Institution, claims that potentially 343,000 foreign students would be eligible for visas due to the expansion of the H-1B visa program and the lifting of the cap on “aliens of extraordinary ability” visas:

The Senate's bill also lifts the caps entirely on another category of high-skilled immigrants, known as “aliens of extraordinary ability.” (Yes, that's really the term.) If an immigrant has an MD, a PhD in math, science, or engineering, or can prove to the government that she has extraordinary abilities--a successful dancer or editor of a niche magazine, for example--then one can bypass the entire H1-B system. An employer can sponsor the immigrant immediately for a green card.

Under the bill, even undergrads can get green cards directly out of college without having to apply for the H1-B. Ruiz estimates that about 343,000 foreign students currently studying in the U.S. will be eligible to apply for this fast track to citizenship.

However, there already is no cap on visas for immigrants with “extraordinary ability.” Moreover, even without Senate legislation, the number of people who could potentially qualify for this visa type (O-1 visa) is small. Out of almost 9 million visas given out last year, only 10,590 people were issued “O-1” type visas, which are split into two categories -- O-1A for science, technology, engineering and math and O-1B for those involved in the arts.

The visa process requires the applicant to show they have “received a major, internationally-recognized award, such as a Nobel Prize,” or additional criteria. The O-1B visa requires similar evidence, including a “significant national or international award or prize ... such as an Academy Award, Emmy, Grammy.” In addition, unless guidelines change under the new comprehensive immigration legislation, the visa expires after three years and must be renewed each following year.

However, even with more highly skilled workers, studies have shown that more immigrants actually increases demand for workers, stimulates investment, and promotes specialization for many workers already in the labor force. 

Contrary to the idea that more workers automatically means more competition, the demand for workers increases overall because it is not a “fixed pie.” As James Surowiecki explained in The New Yorker, skilled immigrants actually increases demand for more workers, thereby decreasing competition overall:

The national debate on immigration makes it seem as if immigrant workers were competing with native-born workers for shares of a fixed pie. That's always a questionable assumption, but in the case of skilled immigrants it's simply wrong. Their presence makes the pie bigger for everyone.

As Surowiecki further pointed out, many of these highly skilled immigrants are responsible for creating many more jobs:

What's more, historically there has been a clear connection between immigration in the U.S. and entrepreneurship, with immigrants creating companies (and jobs) at a disproportionate rate. In one famous study, the social scientist AnnaLee Saxenian showed that Chinese and Indian immigrants alone founded a quarter of Silicon Valley start-ups between 1980 and 1998, while a 2007 study found that a quarter of all technology and engineering start-ups between 1995 and 2005 were founded by immigrants. On a larger scale, more than forty per cent of the companies in the 2010 Fortune 500 were started by immigrants or their children.

The idea of expanding visas for highly skilled immigrants is also one of the few issues supported by both Republicans and Democrats, including both presidential candidates in the last election.