How Foreign-Born Workers Spark Employment and Innovation


The way critics tell it—including presidential hopefuls as varied as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—high-skilled foreign workers are job stealers. If these candidates have their way, living and working in the U.S. will become harder, not easier, for foreign talent.

This protectionism, the theory goes, will positively impact the quantity and quality of American jobs: one, by sheltering the American worker from foreign competitors, and two, by preventing American companies from hiring talented foreigners willing to work for less.

The truth is foreign talent has not been shown to suppress wages and has in fact grown American employment and innovation. Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by foreigners or their offspring, including Yahoo!, Google, Intel, and YouTube. Educated immigrants secure patents at around double the rate of educated, native-born Americans. Cities that have more foreign professionals employed in high-skill, specialty occupations have been shown to have lower unemployment rates and more robust entrepreneurial environments. In other words, since these entrepreneurs are starting and growing a new business, there is no job for them to steal. Instead, this immigrant creates American jobs and is helping to stimulate and drive our economy.

Immigrants are almost twice as likely to start businesses than native-born Americans, according to research by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. And despite far lower employment numbers overall, immigrants were 27 percent of all U.S. entrepreneurs in 2012, up from 14 percent in 1996. In Silicon Valley, immigrant founders started 52 percent of companies between 1995 and 2002, a period that has spawned unprecedented growth and productivity. Engineering and technology companies started by immigrant founders in 2012 employed 560,000 workers and produced $63 billion in sales. There would, in a word, be no Silicon Valley without immigrants. This is why business leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates support immigration policy reform that will make it easier for talented entrepreneurs to start innovative companies, which will in turn grow America’s workforce, create American jobs, and bolster our competitiveness.

But the solution is not to limit the number of high-skilled foreign workers. A report in April by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that U.S. universities are graduating only half the workers to fill the 150,000 computer jobs that open up each year. We desperately need these high-skilled foreign immigrants.

Rather, we must revise existing rules by, for example, giving the Department of Labor more leverage to punish rule breakers; and by establishing exacting displacement rules, which will require employers to prove that an American worker of comparable skills was not displaced to make room for a foreign worker. The 2013 Senate bill on immigration had 22 provisions to prevent misuse of current immigration policy.

We must also adopt new and fresh policies that will help us maintain our edge in innovation. The proposed Startup Visa, which some are calling the “Entrepreneur Visa,” has strong bipartisan support and backing from tech and business leaders, and is a timely and powerful step in that direction. The visa is intended to attract tech entrepreneurs and will require applicants to prove they offer an innovative product or service, or that they’ve received significant funding from U.S. investors. Priority will be given to those who can demonstrate that they are job creators, affiliated with U.S. accelerators and universities, and who earn advanced degrees in science and math from American universities.

In my 30 years in economic development, in which I’ve worked with roughly 700 communities nationwide, I have found that entrepreneurship and diverse populations go hand in hand—that communities that welcome foreign talent and innovation put themselves at a competitive advantage. The same is true at the country level. The island-sate of Singapore, void of natural resources, has become an economic powerhouse in no small part due to its embrace of foreign skilled-talent. Other countries, from Canada to Italy, are making the connection and revising their immigration policies accordingly.

It simply makes no sense that the United States currently has no immigration pathway for entrepreneurs. These are individuals who pose no threat to the American workforce. Rather, entrepreneurs bring jobs, innovations, and economic growth to our communities.

America is still the world’s leader in innovation and entrepreneurship. Keeping it that way will depend on putting our politics aside on this wedge issue long enough to enact bold, sweeping job-centric immigration reform.

Angelos Angelou founded the International Accelerator and Angelou Economics in Austin, TX. Follow @AngelouEcon

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