The Public Policy

The Nobel Case for Immigration

Keeping our eyes on the prize when it comes to immigration policy.

By and 10.26.10

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Only 1 in 20 people on earth live in America. But Americans won 4 of 11 Nobel prizes this year. Last year, it was 8 of 9. Many of those American laureates are immigrants. Today, about 1 in 8 Americans are foreign-born, but 1 in 4 American Nobel laureates since 1901 are foreign-born. Immigrants, it seems, are chronic overachievers. America would benefit by letting more in.

A third of Silicon Valley's scientists and engineers are immigrants. Forty percent of Ph.D. scientists working in the U.S. are foreign-born. They are sources of innovation, progress, and -- not to be ignored -- jobs. If our immigration laws allowed more high-skilled workers into the country, the result would be faster growth and higher employment.

America has a long waiting list of eager high-skilled immigrants. Some of them may be future Nobel laureates.

But current immigration laws are keeping them out the country. The H-1B visa for skilled immigrants is capped at 85,000. Demand is far higher than that in most years. In non-recession years, those 85,000 spots are typically filled in a single day.

The quota on highly skilled immigrants is economically costly. Genius-level intellects are missing out on the chance to flower at the world's best universities. They're also missing out on one of the world's best entrepreneurial environments. The world is missing out on their lost achievements. And Americans are missing out on cutting-edge jobs in high-tech fields. Consumers lose out on products that are never invented.

A 2005 World Bank study found that foreign graduate students working in the United States file an enormous number of patents. A quarter of international patents filed from the U.S. in 2006 named a non-U.S. citizen working in the U.S. as the inventor or co-inventor. Immigrants -- some of whom our immigration bureaucracy refuses to recognize -- are responsible for an outsized portion of today's rapid technological advancement.

Fortunately for America, some of these high achievers are willing to break the law to be here. According to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics, there are almost 300,000 illegal Indian immigrants in the U.S. Many of them arrived here on H-1B or student visas and have overstayed their legal residency in hopes of getting a green card.

The non-partisan National Foundation for American Policy reports that for every H-1B visa issued, U.S. technology firms increase their employment by five workers. It is a remarkable policy failure that almost 300,000 Indian immigrants live in legal limbo. They should be allowed to flex their entrepreneurial muscle without fear of being deported.

And that's just India. There are millions of talented individuals from Asia, Europe, and elsewhere who could do wonders for America's ailing economy, if the law would let them. A co-winner of this year's chemistry Nobel, Ei-ichi Negishi, is an immigrant from Japan. How many like him want to come here, but can't?

This year's physics Nobel laureates, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novosolev, emigrated from Russia to the UK. What if they had come to the U.S. instead?

Most immigrants to the United States have lower skills than a potential Nobel Prize winner. But policy makers cannot look into the future and figure out who will win a Nobel Prize and who will be average. Immigration restrictions make it less likely for Americans to win that prize. Immigrants are less likely to find a country where they could intellectually flourish. That is the world's loss.

The number of Nobel-caliber intellects who have lost their opportunity to do research in this country is unknown. What is known is that the U.S. government has kept out millions of the most inventive, brilliant, and entrepreneurial people in the world for no good reason.

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About the Author

Ryan Young is Fellow in Regulatory Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

About the Author

Alex Nowrasteh is a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.