U.S. must tap ‘best and brightest’ immigrants to thrive in today’s global economy

The United States is a nation of immigrants bound together by the American ideals of individual freedom and responsibility and driven by the limitless opportunities of free enterprise.

These powerful draws of freedom and opportunity have brought the world’s best and brightest to our shores for generations.

Today, as we face a sluggish economic recovery and persistently high unemployment, immigrants can strengthen our efforts to grow the economy, create jobs and keep America competitive. But to truly leverage the talent, energy, ideas and hard work of immigrants, we must adopt rational reforms to our immigration system. What’s at stake if we don’t? Innovation, growth and jobs.

According to the Partnership for a New American Economy, immigrant entrepreneurs are responsible for 18 percent of all Fortune 500 companies, including tech and business giants Google, Yahoo, Big Lots and BJ’s Wholesale Club.

Combined, those enterprises pump $1.7 trillion in annual revenue into our economy and employ 3.7 million workers around the world.

Immigrant-owned small businesses can also make a big impact. As highlighted in the U.S. Chamber’s recent report, “Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Creating Jobs and Strengthening the Economy,” immigrants are not solely job creators in the high-tech sector. They are helping rejuvenate local communities and creating employment opportunities for their neighbors. And they are tapping into high-growth sectors and starting businesses in food manufacturing, transportation, construction, money transfer and travel services and tourism.

These growth businesses put Americans to work at home and often connect our markets with customers outside of the United States.

America’s top-notch colleges and research institutions also help draw the world’s talent. More than half of the master’s and doctoral students studying the natural sciences and engineering disciplines at U.S. colleges and universities are foreign born. But after we educate these scientists and engineers in our institutions, U.S. immigration laws discourage them from remaining here.

We should abandon this mindless practice. Instead, we should allow the talented individuals we already attract to stay and work in the United States if employers want to hire them. Doing so would help draw global investment, create and retain jobs for our workers and grow our economy.

What’s more, foreign born individuals with education and expertise in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – are needed to meet the growing demand for high-skilled workers.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce projects that by 2018 there will be 2.8 million job openings in technology-related careers at all levels.

Of those jobs, 1.2 million will be new and 1.6 million will be replacements for retirees – and nearly 800,000 of them will require an advanced degree. However, by 2018, the United States will have produced only about 400,000 American STEM graduates with a master’s degree or a doctorate.

As a result, we face a skills gap that will compromise our global competitiveness. We must have the right people in those jobs, including high-skilled immigrants, to keep key innovation industries strong and productive.

It boils down to this: If we’re going to continue to attract and retain the world’s most creative entrepreneurs who want to better their lives and add to our economy, we’ve got to adopt a rational immigration policy that harnesses the energy and innovation of enterprising foreigners.

We’ve got to cut the red tape that holds back enterprising immigrants and ensure that we welcome job creators of every size and in every sector. It’s also critical that we enable high-skilled immigrants and foreign students to invest their talent in our knowledge economy.

Contact Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, at www.uschamber.com.