Now that President Obama has signed the health care reform bill into law, Congress’s attention will be turning to immigration reform. Not a moment too soon, from my point of view. Immigration is central to American innovation, both historically and in the very recent past — and innovation, in turn, is central to maintaining leadership in the world’s markets. Now more than ever, the “welcome mat” for immigrants needs to be out.
However, there are scary signs of growing anti-immigration sentiment. Consider the “illegal alien” Halloween kit manufactured by Forum Novelties and marketed by major retailers, including Target, Toys “R” Us, Walgreens, and Amazon. The costume consists of a space alien mask and an orange prison jumpsuit with the words “illegal alien” on the front and a fake green card as an additional prop. The costume is offensive, to say the least. It suggests the growing anger in this country toward immigrants. In fact, the designers of the costume say they wanted to call it “Lou Dobbs’s worst nightmare,” according to a report in USA Today. The major retailers withdrew the outfit following negative stories in the media, although it is still available online.
The second incident relates to one of my top students at the Tuck School of Business, who got a permanent job offer in summer 2008 after a summer internship with an investment bank. His life was set, or so he thought. To his dismay, in April 2009 the investment bank withdrew the offer. It had taken funding from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP, and the U.S. government has mandated that companies taking TARP money must jump through extra hoops when looking to employ immigrants.
He got a green card by June 2009 and was once again offered the same job. This time he was able to take the job. In other words, the only reason his job offer originally was withdrawn is because he’s not an American. This incident is extremely unfortunate.
Resentment toward immigrants has been growing in recent years, doubtless exacerbated by the economic crisis and rising unemployment in the U.S. The shortsighted reasoning behind that resentment is that foreigners will take jobs that could go to Americans. But we are forgetting two things. First, an immigrant may have skills and capabilities that are unique and not otherwise available in the U.S. More important, this is not a zero-sum game. A talented immigrant creates innovation that builds new industries and thereby creates more jobs. Just look at Silicon Valley.
Its secret is “ICs” — integrated circuits, which some people jokingly refer to as “Indians and Chinese.” Consider that the co-founder of Google is Sergey Brin, a Russian. The co-founder of Sun Microsystems is Vinod Khosla, an Indian. eBay was founded by Pierre Omidyar, who is French. The co-founder of Juniper Networks is an Indian, Pradeep Sindhu. YouTube was co-founded by Steve Chen, who is Chinese. Yahoo! was co-founded by Jerry Yang, a Chinese immigrant. Andy Grove, a Hungarian, co-founded Intel. The companies these highly skilled immigrants co-founded account for many, many jobs. There are many more such Silicon Valley startups established by immigrants, from WiChorus, founded by Rehan Jalil and acquired by Tellabs, to Hotmail, founded by Sabeer Bhatia and acquired by Microsoft.
An open immigration policy is a prerequisite to this country’s continued vitality. Let us hope that the current trend to restrict immigration is just a passing fad.
(Courtesy: Harvard Business Review)