The movement of people and the movement of information work in tandem; that’s why Silicon Valley is getting upset with Congress’s refusal to reform immigration policy. A better immigration policy could encourage innovation and spur job growth in the U.S.
“A group of Silicon Valley technology leaders, impatient with attempts to rewrite immigration laws, is funding efforts to help undocumented youths attend college, find jobs, and stay in the country despite their illegal status,” begins an article in the Wall Street Journal. The problem is that the U.S. still hasn’t passed the Dream Act, a core reform to immigration policy in America. If passed, it would allow conditional residency to undocumented immigrants who have graduated from the U.S. high school system and lived in the States for at least five years. Despite previous bipartisan support, the Dream Act fell into a political hotspot in a broader debate about American 11-million strong immigration problem. The last version of the Dream Act to try to make it into legislation was stopped in the Senate, despite being labeled as part of defense spending.
[pullshow id="1"]The Dream Act would effectively naturalize 2.1 million children and young adults in the U.S., many from Mexico, but a significant number from other countries, including South Korea, India, and China. These, of course, being youths who went to public schools on taxpayer dollars, youths locked out of the workforce by no fault of their own. These undocumented youth include Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post,who came out last year in the New York Times about his status in an effort to challenge popular conceptions of immigrant children. Also included: a good friend of mine, who came to this country legally, only to have her naturalization process fall apart after eight years when her father suddenly disappeared. She wasn’t able to continue through college and had to find jobs off the record, often working for lower rates than her documented co-workers. Also included: someone close to you.
The bigger issue, perhaps, is that American politics is increasingly unconducive towards the movement of people and the movement of information. Tech-wise, recall the DMCA, with its counterproductive digital rights management, or the SOPA/PIPA one-two, which threatened to effectively shut down the internet. People-wise, consider the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), an almost unique burden via the Americans in the Western world:
Before traveling, you must pay $14 to complete an online United States government form called ESTA… [It] asks for basic personal data, like your name and birth date. It also asks whether you are guilty of “moral turpitude,” whether you’re planning crimes or “immoral activities” and whether you suffer from “lymphogranuloma venereum”(don’t ask). If you’re involved in terrorism or genocide — and for some reason you’ve decided to take this opportunity to inform the United States government — there’s a box for that. And if you’re a spy — a particularly artless one — please let us know. Naturally, no one with anything to hide will answer honestly. Such purposeless questions recall Thoreau — “I saw that the State was half-witted” — and should astonish Americans, who know better than their government how to welcome guests.
A 2006 survey by the U.S. Travel Association found that foreign travelers were more afraid of United States immigration officials than of terrorism or crime. [pullthis id="1" display="outside"]Foreign travelers are more afraid of U.S. immigration officials than of terrorism or crime.[/pullthis] They rated America’s borders by far the least welcoming in the world. Two-thirds feared being detained for ‘minor mistakes or misstatements.” And while young people are still eager to arrive on American shores, educated people are shying away. A Gallup poll, visualized by GOOD Magazine, found that America has very little to gain in terms of educated immigrants– if given the option, a college educated young adult has a very small likelihood to choose the U.S. as their destination to work or live. Singapore is increasingly the go-to for educated people, followed by Iceland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Considering numerous studies that have correlated first and second generation immigrants as drivers for innovation, should America be worrying that its immigration policy is having a seriously detrimental effect on its competitive edge? With the auto industry and other manufacturing industries disappearing, is it the technology sector’s turn to worry? Silicon Valley, while still the reigning king of innovation, is beginning to feel competition from Israel, the ‘Silicon Valley of the East’, as well as Japan, China, and India. China’s cheap workforce and lax laws have already made it the manufacturing hub, and its cyberwarfare strategy is giving the country an edge in turning cheap knockoffs into serious competitors. India, similarly, is quietly moving from ‘call center’ to ‘serious business-to-business innovator’.
I believe the problem lies in government policy. Consider Shi Yigong, “a molecular biologist at Princeton, [who] turned down a prestigious $10 million research grant to return to China and become the dean of life sciences at Beijing’s Tsinghua University” in 2008. The Atlantic‘s “The End of Chinatown” points out that this is part of bigger trend:
Recent years have seen stories of Chinese ‘sea turtles’—those who are educated overseas and migrate back to China—lured by Chinese-government incentives that include financial aid, cash bonuses, tax breaks, and housing assistance.” Shi Yigong is one of these ‘sea turtles’, but unskilled laborers are leaving too, or choosing not to come at all: “labor shortages in China have led to both higher wages and more options in where they can work…. [and] in the past five years, the number of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. has been on the decline, from a peak of 87,307 in 2006 to 70,863 in 2010.” Again, the question persists: is America’s poor immigration policy correlated with losing its competitive edge? [pullthis id="3" display="outside"]Recent years have seen stories of Chinese ‘sea turtles’—those who are educated overseas and migrate back to China—lured by Chinese-government incentives that include financial aid, cash bonuses, tax breaks, and housing assistance.[/pullthis]
America is still the best place for technology and business to be; arcane laws and policies are bound to change that though. The focus on short-term electoral politics means that American politicians have a hard time justifying investments in its public infrastructure, which has a high sunk cost and a slow initial-return (think transportation and cutting edge technology). America is not in the top ten of internet speeds. The government refuses to act as a loss leader in updating public works, and balks at recovering losses through taxing potential business profits. Instead, innovation and leadership occur vis-a-vis private companies.
As Prime Ministers and government offices lose their monopoly on communication between nations, technology and education become efforts led by companies, not politicians. Google has already butted heads with China over operating policy– and as the opening WSJ article points out, Silicon Valley is trying to circumvent American law as well. “American politics, deadlocked, makes for a poor environment for getting things done”; this is perhaps what Regina Dugan was thinking when she left DARPA for Google, or what Al Gore meant when he said “our democracy has been hacked.”
[pullshow id="3"]The January 19th, 2012, shutdown of the internet in response to SOPA/PIPA showed the clout of tech companies and internet services on decision-making in government, as does President Obama’s tense conversation with Steve Jobs on matters of business outsourcing. The government is increasingly not the place to go for getting things done. This all brings us back to the relationship between technology and immigration. In a field built on the movement of information, the presences of people’s heads is surprisingly important. So important, that tech companies have taken initiative to changing the U.S. government’s approach to immigration. The message is clear: “‘We think Congress’s inaction…is devastating for these students and tragic for the country,’ said Ms. Powell Jobs… U.S. tech companies have long backed raising the number of visas the government issues for skilled immigrants such as software engineers, and argue the country is losing its competitive edge as other economies attract skilled labor forces.”
Neither is America helping create home-grown professionals the tech-sector can use. College diplomas are increasingly awarded to the liberal arts, but the workforce demand is for the harder sciences. Meanwhile, the ratios are pretty damning: U.S. citizens and permanent residents graduate two students in science and engineering fields (SE) for every five in liberal arts (LA). Hispanic students and temporary residents graduate 1:1.7 SE/LA, and Asian students are almost 1:1 SE/LA. Guess who’s more likely to also be an immigrant, first or second generation, with strong ties to work outside of the U.S.?
Fixing the trend of reverse brain-drain is going to require than simply fixing visa issues, as Vivek Wadhwa repeatedly points out. Fixing the Dream Act is one solution, but it only addresses the problem of retaining educated Americans. The Start-Up Visa Act proposes to give potential immigrants a fast track to residency if their start-up is funded by American investors, encouraging an international pool of innovators to come to the U.S. instead of elsewhere, but the government hasn’t passed that into law either. Meanwhile, arguments that immigrant labour would take much needed ‘American jobs’ is not a legitimate claim– innovation is perhaps the only way to sustain economic growth, especially in light of international competition. Not to mention, this country has been continually propelled by a steady stream of immigrants who eventually integrate and become just as American as you and me.
While handing policy reigns to business is tantamount to giving away limbs (recall the fiscal crisis?), alienating the last profitable business sectors in the country is not the best course of action either. Educated immigrants should be encouraged to stay, not leave, and should not get deadlocked into the same rhetoric that cries for border fences. Meanwhile, tech companies have to operate, because business does not stop when government does. The alternative to immigration reform reads increasingly like a script straight out of science fiction (Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, to be precise): BlueSeed, a visa-free, tax-free, floating island community twelve miles off the coast of California, outside of U.S. sovereignty. BlueSeed is the tech sector’s version of the Cayman Islands, with one exception: the purpose here is to connect people who can’t get work-visas in the U.S. with tech companies increasingly reliant on foreign-based labour. Rooms start at only $1,600 a month.