By Tom Still

With tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors already across the southern border and thousands more likely on their way, illegal immigration has become a flash point for many Americans.

Some people feel compelled to embrace vulnerable children who fled Central America in search of a better life; others are deeply worried about the economic, social and security threats stemming from the nation’s seeming inability to stem the tide.

The saga of teenagers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador trekking alone across Mexico is the most visible example of why the United States needs a rational approach to immigration reform, but it’s not the only reason why the president and Congress must act.

America graduates about 40,000 foreign-born students each year who have earned master’s and doctoral degrees in science, engineering and technology – and promptly kicks many of them out of the country to return home and compete against us.

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It’s a largely unseen side of the immigration debate that affects Wisconsin’s ability to compete in the global economy, as much or more than border-hopping. The reasons are directly tied to economic dynamism and Wisconsin’s long-term demographic challenges.

Consider this statement: “… Even if we are able to retrain Wisconsin’s entire unemployed population and match them with available jobs, we will still fall well short of filling the projected 925,000 jobs created or replaced between 2008 and 2018. This is because our working age population already peaked in 2010 and is projected to continue declining through at least

That’s from a report to Gov. Scott Walker from a working group headed by Tim Sullivan, the former Bucyrus-Erie chief executive officer who was asked to study Wisconsin’s workforce needs. The conclusion: Legal immigration is good for the U.S. economy and Wisconsin shouldn’t miss the
chance to attract talent it needs to remain competitive.

In a global economy, Wisconsin looks much less international than even its neighbors. Compared to Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan, Wisconsin has a smaller share of foreign-born population and total labor force, as well as fewer foreign-born business owners. The gap is glaring when it comes
to business startup rates, as immigrants are about four times more likely to launch a business than native-born Americans.

It is vital to keep foreign-born workers with specific skills needed in today’s knowledge-based economy. Every foreign-born graduate with an advanced degree in a science, technology, engineering or math field is associated with, on average, 2.6 jobs for American workers, according to a federal estimate.

Three-quarters of all patents awarded to the nation’s top 10 patent-producing universities in
2011 had at least one foreign inventor. During that same period, more than half of all patents (54 percent) were awarded to the group of foreign inventors most likely to face visa hurdles – students, postdoctoral fellows and staff researchers. Those findings were contained in “Patent pending: How immigrants are reinventing the American economy,” which was published by the New American Economy partnership.

Aren’t immigrants taking jobs from native-born citizens? Certainly not in the case of scientists, engineers and technicians, who remain in short supply nationally due to decades of decline in the production of American-born students in those fields. The Sullivan report addressed that perception, as well.

“… There is no evidence that immigration has a negative impact on native employment,” it read. “There is evidence that immigration encourages U.S. natives to upgrade their skills through additional education or training. This would encourage native-born workers to shift into the middle class.”

While American kids were majoring in finance or the social sciences, foreign-born students were competing to become scientists and engineers. Now that those foreign-born students are earning advanced degrees in U.S. universities, the immigration system is preventing most of them from
staying – just as they’re needed most.

The solutions include granting permanent residency (“green cards”) to foreign students who earn graduate degrees in science and technical fields; creating a startup visa for foreign-born entrepreneurs who want to use their research to form companies; and remove caps on the H-1B temporary high-skilled visa. 

The crisis on America’s southern border is real and immediate, but Congress and President Obama are unlikely to quickly resolve that emergency unless other immigration reforms are addressed at the same time. A comprehensive solution that protects our borders while keeping them open for those who can contribute to a more prosperous America should be the pathway

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the
Wisconsin State Journal.