President Obama's National Security Strategy released on Thursday has launched the opening salvo in a battle to recast what immigration means to the United States. The new strategy observes that American prosperity and leadership depends on "attracting the premier human capital for our workforce." That is, immigration equals national power. This recasting comes at a critical moment. The United States can no longer take for granted its capacity to attract and retain foreign talent. Successfully competing for the world's best and brightest requires urgent immigration reform.
American power and immigration are closely interlinked. The most dynamic sectors of the U.S. economy are heavily dependent on foreign talent. Immigrants have founded 25percent of public, venture-backed U.S. companies, including eBay, Yahoo, and Google. Between 1995 and 2005, foreigners from just two countries - China and India - accounted for almost 30 percent of all Silicon Valley startups.
American leadership in science and technology also rests on the inflow of talent from abroad. As fewer and fewer U.S. citizens have chosen careers in science, foreigners have stepped in to fill the gap. One-fourth of America's science and engineering workforce is foreign-born. In 2007, foreigners accounted for almost 50 percent of all science and engineering doctorates awarded in the United States.
Immigration is not inevitably destined to remain a wellspring of American power. Historically, greater economic opportunity, superior universities, a relatively open immigration system, and a tolerant society rendered the United States an irresistible magnet for immigrants. But the world is rapidly changing, and the most talented immigrants may no longer stay.
Home to the fastest growing major economies, Asia has become a region of opportunity for returnees who are highly educated or have overseas work experience. Asian governments have begun to actively court their expatriates. China, for example, uses world-class facilities, plentiful grant money, and prestigious titles to woo researchers living abroad.
Whether America's ability to cream off the best and brightest has already declined remains uncertain. Prior to the financial crisis, the "stay rates" for foreigners receiving PhDs in science and engineering increased slightly. But a 2008 survey of foreign students enrolled in U.S. higher education found that 55 percent of Indian respondents and 40 percent of Chinese respondents wanted to return home within five years. If this snapshot is predictive, then "stay rates" for these groups are set to substantially decline.
The United States cannot rest on its laurels. Sustaining American power will require stepping up efforts to attract and retain foreign talent. A number of worthy proposals already exist.
One would be to increase the number of H-1B visas for foreigners with critical skills.
Another would be the creation of a new visa for immigrant entrepreneurs, as outlined in a Senate bill recently introduced by John Kerry and Richard Lugar. The bill would establish a visa for immigrants who raise startup funds from U.S. investors and grant them legal residence if the venture generates at least five jobs.
A third would focus on foreigners in science and engineering graduate programs. Any number of measures could make the United States a more attractive long-term home for them. Hand out Green Cards with their diplomas. Automatically grant them work visas upon graduation. Or introduce a flexible visa allowing them to move between the United States and their home country for a ten-year period with an ultimate option of settling in the United States and expedited citizenship.
A fourth would recognize that immigrants often return home to be closer to family. The United States could facilitate visas for family members of foreigners who work in science and technology-related industries.
The overarching objective of President Obama's National Security Strategy is to renew American power. Promoting immigration is the most immediate way to do so. Other wellsprings of American power, such as infrastructure and education, can only be moved in a positive direction over the long term. Major projects to upgrade America's infrastructure will take years, while the returns from improving education will require a generation to realize. Although these goals should be pursued as well, renewing American power starts with welcoming foreign talent to America's shore.
By Daniel M. Kliman:
Special to CBSNews.com