I don't have to belabor the point with ZDNet readers that high-skill workers are fairly essential to the health of the American economy. It shouldn't really matter, however, where those high-skilled workers were accidentally born. I chose that description on purpose, as it is my firm belief that birthright is a fairly shaky foundation upon which to build the walls countries do against the outside world. It's about as just as saying the right to live and work in a given country is dependent on blonde hair.
Irrespective of birthplace, we should want to bring skilled workers to the United States, and historically, that is what America has done. As this opinion piece in the LA Times notes, foreign-born technology experts were instrumental in the founding of eBay, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems and Google, all companies that have more than given back to this nation by hiring legions of American citizens who were accidentally born on these shores.
Why, then, do we persist in keeping the barrier to such workers artificially high? H1-B visas are pegged at an incredibly low 65,000 per year, a limit that last year was reached in a day. Further, H1-B application fees were just hiked by the Senate to $5,000. The backlog of green card applications, the normal vehicle through which workers acquire long-term rights to live and work in the United States, is so large that some have found themselves in legal limbo for five years.
Just as a point of comparison, the European Union just announced a new "blue card" program that is designed to attract skilled workers to Europe. The card covers a two year period and is renewable, and the EU intends to complete the application process for such cards within months. Clearly, Europe is hoping to take advantage of America's ongoing anti-immigrant bias and attract workers that otherwise would have gone to the United States.
Now, I'm not going to pretend that such nativist impulses aren't rotting the moral fiber of Europe as much as America (this panic-sounding article could be the tip of an iceberg). Maybe a French version of Lou Dobbs exists that is just as much an intellectual cancer as the US version. Some European nations did vote recently against a proposed EU constitution, less so because of that document's obvious flaws and more because of fears of new expansion further east. I did notice that Swiss nationals had some rather strong anti-immigrant feelings (odd for a nation where 20% of the workforce is foreign-born, though their ire seemed more directed, paradoxically enough, at ex-Yugoslavs), and the Irish seemed to freak out whenever someone with darker skin than them was seen walking around their town (leading, inexorably, to a revocation of citizenship rights based on birth, a vote that occurred while I was living there).
Though I lived for five years in Europe, however, I am a proud American, and that's why I am flabbergasted that a nation composed entirely of immigrants (that includes you, Mr. Dobbs) is so blocked on the subject of immigration. We seem as a nation to have coalesced around the mistaken notion that if we raise enough economic barriers to the outside world (whether they be immigration barriers, or repudiation of barrier-reducing treates such as NAFTA or the WTO), we will protect our wealth from outsiders. That's nuts, and a surefire recipe for economc deflation and lack of relevance on a global stage over the long term.
We may be the largest market for products today. That status won't last a decade as fast-growing China (and slightly behind, India) start to grow in importance as a destination market. We need to be prepared to compete with an entire planet of entrpreneurs that are ready and able to offer products to these new markets. The days when American industrial might was the only game in town is over. We need to be prepared to be an active competitor in a global marketplace.
Unfortunately, we aren't. We don't emphasize the importance of the sciences as a culture (and we certainly provide very little federal money to encourage study in this area). We have let our primary schools lapse in global rankings, and politicians seem lost as to what to do about it (and we laugh at how France finds it difficult to deal with its strike-prone unions). Our medical care system is an expensive money vacuum (you know that there is a problem when "standard" rates are a 2 to 3 times multiple of what insurance companies pay). Our broadband rankings slip every year, meaning that nations such as South Korea and Japan are more likely to develop the technologies that take advantage of a real high-speed network.
Instead of dealing with these issues, we engage in property speculation, leading as it inevitably does, to a property crash, and obsess over the "threat" posed by all the people coming to this country to do low-skilled work most Americans don't want to do in the first place (ignoring, as we do, that the fact that they don't pay taxes, learn English, or feel like a real part of this country is due entirely to the fact that we have made them ILLEGAL).
Maybe I'm just feeling a bit punchy this morning, but we need to focus on the real issues, however much they might make us uncomfortable. Granted, that's a hard thing to ask during an election season when politicians compete to offer comforting easy answers, but I think we should at least try.
We can't afford to retreat to fortress America.