Open the gate for the next Gates

This year, April Fools’ Day has a new meaning. The fools are the foes of immigration and globalization who demand strict limits on the number of skilled foreign workers eligible for visas to work in the United States.

They are fools because their policies don't secure American jobs; they squander them. By keeping out the best and the brightest, by driving them to return home or move to other countries, the anti-globalists choke off the talent and dynamism needed to expand the economy and extend opportunity.

Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder who knows something about innovation, made this point when he lobbied Congress earlier this month to raise visa quotas: “Today, knowledge and expertise are the essential raw materials that companies and countries need in order to be competitive,” he said. “We live in an economy that depends on the ability of innovative companies to attract and retain the very best talent, regardless of nationality or citizenship.”

On April 1, the government will accept applications for H-1B visas, entitling skilled professionals to work here for up to six years. But only 65,000 slots are available, plus another 20,000 for holders of graduate degrees. Last year, 133,000 applications were filed in two days, before the process was cut off, and even more requests are expected this year.



Given the demand, the limits are absurdly low. Fortunately, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, has introduced a bill to raise the annual ceiling to 130,000. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, proposes a limit of 195,000, the number available before 2003.

Any rational assessment of their economic impact shows that H-1B workers make a huge contribution. Gates argues that Microsoft adds four employees to support every foreign-born visa holder it hires. But the whole issue has become ensnared in political gamesmanship -- on both sides of the aisle.

Many Republicans have decided that stirring up anti-immigration fears drives their supporters to the polls, even if their arguments -- that foreigners displace American workers -- make no economic sense. And many Democrats have bowed to pressure from backward-looking unions and adopted the fantasy that America’s future depends on recovering manufacturing jobs that have been lost forever.

In his celebrated speech in Philadelphia, Barack Obama was unusually candid about race but far from honest about jobs. He simply repeated the false, tired shibboleths about “the shuttered mills,” closed down by evil corporations that will ship ‘your job ... overseas for nothing more than a profit.”

Both of these views profoundly misunderstand the nature of today’s global economy. Foreigners don’t displace Americans, and “shuttered mills” are not reopening. Americans will get jobs -- good jobs -- only if the nation remains the center of innovation and ingenuity, using the “essential raw materials (of) knowledge and expertise” Gates talks about.

What makes the visa debate particularly crazy is that the next generation of innovators is already studying in America. They want to stay here, and we’re kicking them out. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls the current policy “pure idiocy,” and the statistics back him up.

According to a recent study by the National Foundation for American Policy, the average high-tech company has 470 jobs open. Microsoft alone has 4,000 unfilled slots. The 500 largest companies combined are looking for 140,000 highly skilled workers.

Around the country, entrepreneurs are pleading for help. In New England, Joe Javorski of Analog Devices tells the Boston Globe: “We depend on our university hires ... to really build the leadership of the organization 10 years from now.” In Arizona, Rep. Giffords’ spokesman says her bill, increasing the visa limit, is designed to attract “just the type of people we want here to drive and grow our economy.”

Kathryn Wylde, president of The Partnership for New York City, tells the New York Times: “It’s a 20th-century, pre-globalization mentality that thinks somehow American companies and jobs can grow if we cut ourselves off from foreign talent.”

This hunger for “foreign talent”certainly reflects a series of American failures. School systems don’t prepare homegrown scholars for rigorous college courses in math and science. Families don’t instill the work ethic needed to flourish in these competitive environments.

But the nation cannot afford to wait. The future is now, and other countries are already seizing on America's self-defeating policies, enticing our most promising graduates with more liberal immigration rules.

Congress needs to lift the limits on H-1B visas and make the path to citizenship for those workers much smoother. We have to open the gate for the next Bill Gates -- named Gong or Gomez, Gupta or Gurevich.

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Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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