I am an immigrant (from Germany). I work in tech (as an investor and previously as an entrepreneur). I support comprehensive immigration reform. That part is pretty simple — it would be hypocritical to argue that something that I have benefitted from tremendously should be less accessible to others. But I have largely chosen to stay out of this particular fight because the arguments on both sides have been too narrow with a lot of needlessly heated rhetoric.
I am quite convinced that the actual impact here will be less than people expect it to be in either direction. The reason is that there are other forces at work that are a lot stronger. Graduate students from places like India and China are returning to their home countries in far greater numbers not only because we have made it harder to stay post 9/11 but also because those countries have rapidly growing domestic economies which offer a lot of opportunity. On the other end of the spectrum of the labor market the far bigger deal is the pressure of technology on wages. I have written about this extensively.
The twin forces of globalization and technology will have far more impact on our economy and society than the changes we are making to immigration law.
I just ran across an article titled “Skilled Immigrants on Why They are Leaving the U.S." in BusinessWeek (via Techmeme). It is not surprising to find diminished job prospects in the U.S. as a key reason, but I was shocked to read that the wait time for a Green Card for Indian and Chinese citizens is now 10 years (that’s a decade!). That is a very long time for anybody to wait and live with the uncertainties faced by visa holders. Just entering the country when you are here on a visa can be a challenge, especially if you are coming in through a major airport. And that was true even before 9/11/2001 when I was flying frequently into JFK and BOS on a student visa.
It would be a mistake to think of this problem as a nuisance to handful of foreigners. For starters, according to this article from earlier in the year, the total number of skilled professionals (doctors, engineers, etc) waiting for a Green Card had already reached 1 million in 2006 (wonder what it is now!). More importantly though is that immigration has been a key aspect of entrepreneurial and high tech activity in the US. From the same article:
Despite the fact that they constitute only 12% of the U.S. population, immigrants have started 52% of Silicon Valley’s technology companies and contributed to more than 25% of our global patents. They make up 24% of the U.S. science and engineering workforce holding bachelor’s degrees and 47% of science and engineering workers who have PhDs. Immigrants have co-founded firms such as Google (GOOG), Intel (INTC), eBay (EBAY), and Yahoo! (YHOO).
I was very lucky, in 1997 — just as I was starting my first company — I married Susan Danziger and received a Green Card shortly thereafter. I have since become a US Citizen and as such now sincerely hope that we can achieve some kind of immigration reform that will stop this brain drain. With every one who returns because they are tired of waiting we are potentially losing a chance at the next breakthrough company (which might very well be targeting the Indian or Chinese markets!).