The news is awash on and off with debates over the "problem" south of the border. Illegal immigrants are streaming across in record numbers and the methods proposed for handling this range from harsher laws to vigilante militias to real big fences. It's a touchy subject. But in this deluge of immigration worry another type of immigration is being overlooked: the legal kind.
Especially in the technology sector immigrants are of the utmost import to the American economy. Something like 30% of Silicon Valley business started in the past 15 years were run and operated by East or South Asians. About 40% of computer science and engineering PhD students in the U.S. are foreign born. Why is this a problem? Well, of course that fact alone is fine, if not great - the problem is the would-be immigrants that might keep up this trend are finding it increasingly hard to come to the U.S., just as opportunities beyond our borders become more appealing.
While one might think America would welcome these immigrants, the numbers and laws run to the contrary: in 2003 the number of visas available for high-skilled workers was nearly quartered, and the most recent attempt to bring the numbers up to even half of their previous level died in the House. Big technology companies lament these difficulties just as foreign immigrants complain about all the immigration red tape in place. At the same time, other nations have lowered barriers as much as possible to attract skilled labor. The desire to come to America - while perhaps no less compelling to Mexicans - is fed by fewer and fewer opportunities for Asian skill.
This is one of many examples of general principles, enacted on a broad scale by the government (here restriction and fear of immigration) having unforeseen and undesirable consequences. While the issue of illegal Mexican immigration is no doubt significant, our Congress has proven incapable of handing even seemingly simple aspects of immigration well. On this one, I have to go with the conservative position that is skeptical in the government's ability to get anything much done.
"The Economist," March 24th-30th 2007 issue, p. 40