Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations writes for Forbes magazine about the links between foreign policy and immigration regulations. He reminds us that the discussion is about more than unskilled or skilled workers in the US.
The CFR is a highly influential and secretive body. Some CFR alums, like Woodrow Wilson, have taken an internationalist tack in public, generating controversy from conservative quarters. I typically dislike secrecy, but Alden's words generally make sense, and I'm posting them here:
Are America's borders tight enough yet? Not nearly, judging from most of the political rhetoric. Yet just-released Census data shows that immigration to the U.S. plummeted last year, falling from an average of one million newcomers annually since 2000 to just over 500,000. Immigration from Asia fell particularly sharply.
While most of the decline is likely a result of the weakening economy, the numbers are the latest sign that in our determination to seal the borders against terrorists and illegal immigrants, the U.S. is inadvertently driving away some of the very people that have long been crucial to its economic success.
There is no question that our economy needs immigrants. Nearly half of this country's science and engineering Ph.Ds are foreign-born, most of whom came to the U.S. to study at top-flight universities that remain the envy of the world. Those who stayed here now occupy many of the senior research jobs at American multinationals. Others have started their own companies--some 40% of U.S. high-tech start-ups were launched by immigrants.
Attracting the best foreigners, however, has become much, much harder. The complaints take many forms. The most common is that the U.S. cap on visas for highly-skilled foreign workers, known as H-1Bs, is far too low. Lifting the restrictions has become caught up in the messy politics of immigration reform, so each spring we now have a mad scramble as companies try to win some of the coveted 85,000 visas that are granted each year.
This year, nearly half the 163,000 applications were turned down. Google, which was lucky to have only 90 of its 300 applicants rejected, said that while it hires mostly American citizens or permanent residents, "If we're to remain an innovative company--one that is creating jobs in the U.S. every day--we also need to hire exceptional candidates who happen to have been born elsewhere."
Microsoft caused ripples last year when it decided to build its new software development facility across the northern border in Vancouver because it couldn't hire the foreign engineers it wanted in Washington state due to visa caps.
But H-1Bs are only a small part of the issue. Many new measures have been put in place since 9/11 to try to keep terrorists out. Some were sensible and overdue and have created only minimal hassles; but others have been a major deterrent to those who want to travel, work or live here. Despite the weak dollar, overseas travel to the U.S. still remains considerably below its pre-9/11 levels, even as tourism has boomed around the world.
Take Brazil, for example. It has been one of the world's hottest economies and tourist travel to the U.S. should be growing. But it takes more than two months for a Brazilian just to schedule an interview for a U.S. visa, and even then he has to travel to Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro to be interviewed and fingerprinted at an American consulate. Not surprisingly, travel from Brazil to the U.S. plummeted after 9/11 and has not come close to recovering.
With the cash crunch that has pummeled Wall Street, firms are eyeing the huge pools of wealth in the Middle East. But many businessmen and government officials from Arab and Muslim countries say they will not travel to the U.S. because of the humiliation they face at our borders, which makes business deals inordinately difficult. The number of visas issued to Middle Eastern travelers today is just half of what it was before 9/11.
The U.S. should be increasingly attractive to foreign investors. However, in a survey earlier this year by the Council on State Governments, three-quarters of the state officials responsible for attracting investment said they had run into difficulties trying to get visas in a timely fashion for potential overseas investors.
There were many good reasons to strengthen U.S. border security after 9/11. When done right, it can help discourage illegal immigration and can be a vital line of defense against terrorists. But this country's strength has long come from offense, not defense--the offense that comes from relentless innovation that has allowed the U.S. to stay a step ahead of its economic and military competitors. Maintaining that strength requires keeping an open door to the most talented and ambitious people the world has to offer. As one business leader told me: "We are in the process of hollowing out our own economy in the name of security." And that will leave us much less secure.
Edward Alden is the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11, just published by HarperCollins.