Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Economic Immigration

Yesterday, I wrote about the coming battle royale between the United States and the European Union over talent. I want to make two points of clarification concerning that post. First, while nation-states make and enforce immigration policy, sub-national entities such as world cities are trying to wrest some control over the flows of human capital. The economic opportunities that proximity affords make certain urban regions the draw, not nation-states. The scales of immigration policy and economic development are at odds.

Second, Rust Belt cities haven't turned a blind eye towards immigration. Managing talent assets is relatively new to the urban policy agenda, but mitigating brain drain (in terms of out-migration) is dominating the discourse. However, I'm beginning to notice a shift in the debate about H-1B visa reform. A recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is a good example of a regional-scale conversation about national immigration policy:

Carnegie Mellon is at ground zero in the H-1B debate. Nearly 25 percent of its students come from other countries -- primarily India, China and South Korea -- and at the advanced-degree level, 40 percent to 45 percent of master's students and nearly 65 percent of Ph.D. students are foreign-born, said Lisa Krieg, director of the school's Office of International Education.

This term, Ms. Krieg's office surveyed 137 graduating international students, and found that a majority had "a very high or high level of anxiety" about their visa status. Of the 68 who had received job offers by early April, more than a third were told by employers that they either would have to work for the firm outside the United States until visa issues were resolved, or would not get the offer at all until a visa was obtained.

While the number of international students winning jobs undoubtedly has improved in the last six weeks, said Paul Fowler, director of the school's Career Center, the visa restrictions are still a major concern.

Putting aside the intriguing tension between the needs of CMU graduates and the City of Pittsburgh, the region has a stake in any kind of immigration reform. I've labeled this problem the "Mobility Paradox." As regions invest in local human capital, the likelihood of more of the population leaving in search of opportunity increases. As education increases, geographic mobility increases. This migration dynamic (education as a push factor) emphasizes the importance of attracting new people to the region. For Pittsburgh, universities such as CMU are vital engines of in-migration (just as they are a powerful force for out-migration). The current H-1B visa program curtails Pittsburgh's ability to reap the talent rewards from CMU and the University of Pittsburgh.

If you will, US immigration policy is partly responsible for shrinking cities and the debt burden they typically shoulder.

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