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Give Us Your Huddled Masses of Engineers—A Commentary by Peter H. Schuck and John Tyler

The following commentary was published in The Wall Street Journal on May 13, 2011.

Give Us Your Huddled Masses of Engineers
By Peter H. Schuck and John Tyler

President Obama devoted almost all of Tuesday's speech in El Paso to the problems raised by illegal immigration: border and workplace enforcement, the need for a fair legalization process, and, almost apologetically, deportation. Only briefly did he mention our interest in attracting more high-skilled immigrants to work in the upper reaches of our economy.

"Today, we provide students from around the world with visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities. But then our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or a new industry here in the United States," Mr. Obama said. This "makes no sense," he added. The president is right.

The critical question is what to do about it. Finding an answer is urgent because the market for these workers is increasingly competitive—and the U.S. is no longer the only powerful magnet. Indeed, new studies from the American Enterprise Institute and the Kauffman Foundation find that we are losing ground in this competition.

Our current policy is plain stupid. Of the more than one million permanent admissions to the U.S. in 2010, fewer than 15% were admitted specifically for their employment skills. And most of those spots weren't going to the high-skilled immigrants themselves, but to their dependents.

The H-1B program that allows high-skilled immigrants to work here on renewable three-year visas, which can possibly lead to permanent status, is tiny. The current number of available visas is only one-third what it was in 2003. Plus, the program is hemmed in with foolish limitations: India is subject to the same visa ceiling as Iceland, visa-holders can't change jobs, and they must return home while awaiting permanent status.

Thus, many employers find the H-1B program useless. Many high-skilled workers prefer to go to more welcoming countries, like Canada and Australia, or to stay home where their economies are now often growing faster than ours. The U.S. does have a program to attract job-creating investors, but it is more limited than some of our competitors' investor programs. In 2010, we granted fewer than 2,500 such visas, down from the 2009 total although higher than in earlier years.

We're shooting ourselves in the foot. Research shows that high-skilled immigrants, particularly those in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, enrich American society in many ways. These workers are notably innovative at a time when the U.S. is in some danger of losing its competitive edge. Not only do they apply for patents at a disproportionate rate, but the government grants their applications two to three times as often as with comparably educated Americans. Even if we limit the comparison to scientists and engineers, high-skilled immigrants in those fields still receive 20% more patents than their American counterparts.

In addition to being more innovative, high-skilled immigrants tend to be more entrepreneurial. They start and grow the kinds of new firms, such as Google, that account for the bulk of job creation. Research consistently shows that they start at least 25% of the STEM companies, which is double the percentage of all legal and illegal immigrants in the U.S. population.

So what can be done? Even without increasing the total number of permanent visas, we can redress the imbalance between admission categories to increase the proportion of those that are highly skilled. Two existing allotments merit low priority and should be granted instead to high-skilled workers: the 50,000 "diversity" visas granted at random to applicants who need only have a high-school education, and the 65,000 visas given to siblings of U.S. citizens. A lottery for the low-skilled is an absurd way to select future Americans, and sibling relationships today are readily sustainable through tourist visas and Skype.

A second reform would move to a point system for most would-be immigrants except for immediate family members, in which skills, entrepreneurship, English fluency, and other factors would count as well as close family ties. Third, we should grant permanent visas to any foreigner who receives a graduate degree from a qualified U.S. university. Finally, we should liberalize the H-1B program, perhaps moving from the current bureaucratic approach to an auction of the visas to employers who would bid for the skills they need, but also allowing for more job mobility for workers after a certain period.

Attracting more of the world's best talent should be a no-brainer. It should not be held hostage to the much harder problem of illegal migration.

Mr. Schuck, a professor at Yale Law School, is visiting at NYU Law School. Mr. Tyler is general counsel of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.