Huddled Masses ... of Software Engineers?

A century ago, America's immigration policy was best summarized in Emma Lazarus's famous lines on the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...." I'm afraid that under the immigration bill now pending in Congress, it will be "Give me your rich, your well-educated, your young high-tech moguls yearning to make even more money."

Supporters of this fundamental change in immigration policy say we need to import well-educated talent if we're to stay competitive.

But exactly whose competitiveness are we talking about? Not the competitiveness of, say, American-born computer engineers. Adjusted for inflation, their earnings haven't gone anywhere in years. That's in part because American companies have been sending so much of their high-tech work abroad. Bringing more foreign-born engineers here -- under an expanded H1-B visa program or a point system, for that matter -- will just depress wages even further.

Some argue that even with all the outsourcing, we still don't have enough well-educated high-tech workers here in America. But this mixes short-term and long-term logic. You'd expect any shortage of talent in America would force companies here to raise salaries sufficiently to induce enough Americans to get the skills in demand. Yet if those companies are allowed to import more high-tech workers, they won't need to raise American salaries. Which means fewer young Americans will be attracted into these careers -- thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophesy of too few Americans to fill them.

Taking the pressure off American companies like this also means taking the pressure off them to help fix America's broken educational system, in which American kids now place last in math and science among young people in all advanced nations.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all in favor of immigration. Our country was built on it. But I worry about bringing in well-educated people with high-tech skills when we've failed to give enough Americans a good education, or pay those who have it what they deserve.

This column is adapted from Reich's weekly commentary on American Public Radio's Marketplace.

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