When it comes to advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, we often see only the difficult politics and the slow pace of progress. But sometimes we get a glimpse of hope, some concrete evidence that our efforts are making a difference, that we are being heard, and that others are taking up the cause and amplifying the energy and volume around this critical issue.
Yesterday was such a moment. I attended an event hosted by the National Chamber Foundation at which New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the keynote speaker. Bloomberg, not uncharacteristically, was blunt, but what was remarkable was the thing he was most blunt about. Speaking of foreign students who come to the United States to earn advanced degrees in the sciences and technical fields, he said:
Turning these students out of the country is, to put it bluntly, about the dumbest thing that we could possibly do. Other countries are bending over backwards to attract these students – and we’re helping them to do it. We’ve become the laughing stock of the world with this policy. The fact is: there is no such thing as too many engineers, too many scientists, or too many technological innovators. We need all of them in this country.”
As part of his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, Bloomberg has established the Partnership for the New American Economy, a coalition of more than 350 mayors and business executives. He was in town yesterday to urge Congress to set aside politics and get moving on legislation that will help the United States “grow its way out” of the current economic situation. He set out four ideas that he believes need to be part of that legislation:
- Better align visa issuance with economic needs, and specifically, dramatically expand the numbers of green cards available for the best of the best.
- Create a path whereby foreign students who are earning advanced degrees in technical fields from U.S. universities can be eligible to work in the United States permanently.
- Stop turning away so many entrepreneurs who want to come here and start businesses.
- Expand and streamline our existing tools for attracting talent to our country, by eliminating the cap on H-1B visas and country-specific green-card quotas.
Each of these four steps, Bloomberg said, enjoyed bipartisan support, would help the economy and American workers by creating more jobs, and won’t cost the American taxpayer a single penny. He said:
As the data clearly show, immigrants don’t take away jobs; they make jobs – and that is especially true for high-skilled immigrants….We desperately need immigrants who want to come here to work, who have the skills our companies need to succeed. The American dream cannot survive if we keep telling the dreamers to go elsewhere.”
Bloomberg’s speech was spirited, blunt, and bold, and he means business. But no less remarkable were the perspectives shared by some of the other panelists at the event. Elizabeth Dickson of Ingersoll Rand praised the important contributions of international students and noted her company’s need for employees with cross-disciplinary degrees, individuals capacitated to think strategically, cross-cuttingly, and innovatively. Robin Paulino of Microsoft told the story of an employee who developed a wildly popular program for the company called Kinect. He is a Brazilian national who attended the Rochester Institute of Technology. She urged the creation of a ready path for green cards for foreign students with advanced degrees. Both of these professionals are, in their very job titles, evidence of the global realities of American business today. They are charged with the task of managing “global migration” for their companies, dealing day to day with the global movement of people they call “impact talent.”
Another panelist was the renowned “Dr. Q,” as he was called in his introduction. Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa is associate professor of neurosurgery and oncology and director of the Pituitary Tumor Center atJohns Hopkins Medical Center. You might guess that he came to the United States as a star student and went straight to Harvard. But his story is much more dramatic than that. He crossed the Mexican border illegally at the age of 19 and went to work picking tomatoes. He later worked as a welder, and in 1986 became a beneficiary of the legalization program that was part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Control Act. He did eventually end up at Harvard, and now he leads a team of talented scientists – 21 of the 23 are foreign nationals, he is fond of pointing out – at Johns Hopkins who are at the cutting edge of brain research and medicine. His story, though dramatic, is not unusual in America. There is an endless store of human talent, an endless capacity for striving and hard work, embedded in our identity as a nation of immigrants. As Mayor Bloomberg said, “the American dream cannot survive if we keep telling the dreamers to go elsewhere.”
We all must be as bold as Mayor Bloomberg was yesterday in demanding that Congress find a way forward to reform the U.S. immigration system so that it embraces foreign students and others who contribute to our economy and our communities.