When the House failed to pass Rep. Lamar Smith’s STEM Jobs Act Thursday night, I cried for America. The bill would have reallocated 55,000 green cards to foreign-born graduates with advanced degrees in science, tech, engineering, and math (STEM). By deciding we don't want to keep the world's best and brightest, we squandered an easy, no-cost and long-term boost to our economy. Our political leaders decided to push our nation from world class to average.
Today, the world's top students come to our universities. They dominate our STEM graduate programs. Each year, we invest several billion dollars in their training through National Science Foundation grants.
Yet, when these bright foreign students receive their masters and Ph.D.s from our top universities, we force them to the back of the visa line. Many leave reluctantly, but once back in their native countries they do what we don’t let them do here: innovate, create jobs and build businesses which then compete with U.S. companies.
Both Republicans and Democrats agree this is national insanity. Both party platforms, approved less than 30 days ago, contain almost identical language on the need for "strategic immigration" – i.e. immigration policies that target the world’s best and brightest. During his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said it “doesn’t make sense” that “we send [these graduates] home to invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else.”
Yet, in this case, actions and words don't match. For more than three years, President Obama and the Democrats have said they will only change the law as part of overall immigration reform. Republican leaders decided for the good of the country to cast off their anti-immigration extremists and push a simple fix. This was more difficult for Republicans than you would think. Just last year, I debated a far right Republican congressman who said he would rather have American "B" students than foreign "A" students. I responded that America is an "A" country.
Rep. Smith’s bill was an easy vote by both parties to fix the problem. Both the liberal Washington Post and conservative Wall Street Journal embraced it. Scores of university presidents and every major technology and business group advocated for this simple change in the law.
Despite the president’s overtures, for the floor vote the White House went quiet. The word is the administration sent notice to its congressional allies to kill the bill. Democratic House members told reporters they liked letting bright STEM graduates stay here but opposed the Republican legislation because it required a corresponding drop in the number of lottery immigrants - those we allow in from other countries through random lottery.
Think about that for a second. Democrats rejected an opportunity to keep the best and brightest the world has to offer because they would rather rely on a random lottery to determine who gets to stay here. These people do not have to speak English. They don't have to have any education. They could come here with no job, no prospects and receive Medicaid.
I have no problem with unskilled legal immigrants. I descend from them. Many if not most are hard working and take tough entry-level jobs.
But our economy is suffering. We invest in foreign graduate students. They excel at our best schools. We train them in state-of-the-art STEM and we need them to stay to help our best companies compete, start innovative new businesses and create jobs. How in the world can anyone say we should favor random immigrants over the world's best-trained scientists?
All but 30 Democrats voted against this legislation last Thursday. God bless these 30 Democrats for bucking the White House and for putting our nation ahead of party loyalty.
When will this political madness end? Our nation is slipping in to an economic abyss. This could have been an easy bipartisan fix. If we can't do this, how will we address the big problems of Medicare, Social Security and tax reform?
I cry for America because it’s clear we aren’t willing to make even the easy choices. I fear I may soon mourn for her greatness as we fail to save ourselves.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies. His latest book is "Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses," (William Morrow, January 2013). He is also author of the New York Times bestselling book, “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream” Contact him on Twitter at @GaryShapiro.