Skip to main content

U.S. needs 21st century immigration plan

By John Feinblatt, Special to CNN
January 30, 2013 -- Updated 1524 GMT (2324 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Feinblatt: U.S. immigration system hasn't been updated since black and white TV
  • Feinblatt: Today our economy is competing on a global scale for the best and brightest
  • He says other nations offer incentives; we make it hard for workers to get in
  • U.S. can't fill STEM jobs, he says. We need to lure workers and entrepreneurs

Editor's note: John Feinblatt is the chief adviser for policy and strategic planning to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

(CNN) -- The prospects for immigration reform just got a lot brighter. Eight leading senators, four Republicans and four Democrats, came together to announce on Monday their agreement on broad principles to modernize our immigration laws, which have been largely unchanged since 1965.

Since then, the world has changed dramatically and globalized markets have revolutionized our economy. But our antiquated immigration laws are still designed for an economy that existed when people were watching black and white TV.

John Feinblatt
John Feinblatt

As China offers generous stipends, access to prestigious incubators, honorary titles and other benefits to lure home the scientists and engineers who come to America to study, we turn these innovators away.

As Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and Chile offer visas and other incentives to attract entrepreneurs to their countries, we make it nearly impossible for most entrepreneurs to come here. And as countries like the United Kingdom experiment with using independent economists to help determine which immigrants their economy needs, we continue with an immigration system that not only ignores our economic health, but actively works to undermine it.

Opinion: Stars align at last for immigration plan

In South Korea, Spain and Switzerland, roughly 80% of all permanent visas are used for employment needs. Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom allocate around 60% of all permanent visas this way. But in the United States, we give just 7% of our permanent residency "green cards" to fill gaps in our economy.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In the past, we could afford an immigration system that was not focused on recruiting top workers. With the American economy such a dominant force, these workers had no other choice but to wait and wait until they could get to America.

But in the global economy, talent is transient. A top scientist who cannot gain access to the United States can easily go work in a lab in Germany, India or any other of America's direct competitors. Canadian immigration authorities recruit scientists with just this pitch, promising far easier entry and access to permanent residency then they could gain in the United States.

The economics are simple. If we attract and retain the world's top talent, our economy will grow faster. A recent study by the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the bipartisan Partnership for a New American Economy found that, from 2000 to 2007, each foreign-born worker with an advanced degree from a U.S. university who stayed in the country to work in science, technology, engineering and math -- the STEM fields -- created, on average, 2.62 additional jobs for American workers. Their innovations power new technologies, new products and new companies.

And the reverse is equally true. If we fail to attract and retain the world's top talent, our economy will falter. By 2018, the United States is projected to have a shortage of more than 230,000 advanced degree STEM workers. Jobs in these fields are exploding, growing three times faster than the rest of the economy over the last decade, but we simply cannot fill them, even in a recession with so many people looking for work.

Obama: Economy needs immigration revamp
Immigration overhaul a reality?
Why is GOP shifting on immigration?
The politics of immigration

The same is true in industries all over the economic spectrum. Harsh immigration laws that discourage migrant farm workers have led to millions of dollars of crops rotting on the vine. Overly bureaucratic and restrictive visa application processes have forced hotels to run at less than peak capacity even when demand is high because they can't get workers to staff them.

Opinion: Key to immigration reform -- Worker visas

In an iPad and smartphone world, we need an iPad and smartphone immigration system. We need a system that recognizes that it is not only possible, but even probable, that a business would have its manufacturing in China, its headquarters in Europe, its back office in India and its sales offices all over the globe.

We need a system that makes it easy for entrepreneurs, scientists, farm workers, engineers, hotel workers, business travelers and all the workers our economy needs to easily come here and help our companies compete. And we need a system that is flexible to changing economic demands, attracting workers when and where they are needed and easing immigration when demand for workers slows.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the 500 business leaders and mayors who make up the Partnership for a New American Economy have been making the economic case for immigration reform for the last several years. Republicans and Democrats are once again, for the first time in years, having honest discussions on how to overhaul the system.

Reforming our immigration laws is not just good economics, it's also good politics. This was made evident on Monday when leading Republicans and Democrats in the Senate came together behind principles that, in their words, would improve our immigration system so that it "will help build the American economy" and "establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation's workforce needs." Recruiting the talent we need to compete and succeed in a global marketplace is an idea that crosses party lines.

Opinion: Immigrant -- Can we trust Obama?

America became the world's most dynamic and powerful economy by opening our doors to all those seeking freedom and opportunity. If we are to retain that position in the 21st century, we must open our doors not only to family members and asylum seekers, but to more of the talented and hard-working people our economy needs to grow.

This is a moment of progress. Leading members of both parties in Congress understand the need for action and are standing together with an agenda for reform. Let's capitalize on it and get the modern immigration system our economy deserves.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of John Feinblatt.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT