JON HUNTSMAN: A GOP Opportunity on Immigration

By JON HUNTSMAN

Party leaders in Tampa have a chance to fashion a platform plank that will spur economic growth.

Americans are facing the most difficult economic headwinds in a generation. Future economic growth will depend in large part on our ability to maintain an edge in human capital. This means we must focus on immigration as a key economic driver rather than solely as a security issue. Immigration contributes to a healthier demographic profile—bringing younger workers to an aging population. Most important, immigrants add to America’s competitive strength in the global economy.

According to a 2011 Kauffman Foundation study, an immigrant is twice as likely to start a company as an American born here. A quarter of all American high-technology firms founded between 1995 and 2005 have had at least one immigrant founder, and 42% of the individuals who earn doctorates in science and engineering from our universities were born overseas.

Given these achievements, imagine the opportunity costs of the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement, which restricted Japanese immigration; the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; and the 1924 Immigration Act, which effectively ended mass Eastern and Southern European immigration. Those laws deprived the United States of millions of talented and driven citizens.

We should not be making the same error today that past generations have made. Yet we are. Rather than lead and work with Congress to deliver permanent solutions, President Obama chose to use an executive order as a policy Band-Aid for young people caught in our immigration laws. This was political theater. America deserves better.

Republicans meeting in Tampa this week should offer a clear alternative. The party should champion a plank that will enhance economic growth by embracing immigrants.

The situation has changed radically from 2007, when President George W. Bush’s effort to reform our immigration laws collapsed in Congress. People aren’t crossing our borders—legally or illegally—as they once were, because there are fewer jobs available. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Mexican immigration may have actually reversed in 2011, with outflows surpassing immigration to the U.S.

While lack of opportunity is reducing the low-skilled illegal population, those who are already here need to be brought out of the shadows of a nation they are already a part of. Most important, the debate must move away from illegal immigration toward immigration as a cornerstone of economic vitality.

When abroad, I’ve always been struck that the American attribute most envied by our competitors is our ability to successfully assimilate generations of immigrants and their dreams into our nation’s fabric. And they increasingly understand the economic stakes. World-wide competition for brainpower is heating up, and failure to reform our immigration system now will stunt America’s future growth prospects, unless the country embraces reform.

Work-based immigration programs like the H-1B visa, which is a temporary program for workers with special skill sets, have to be expanded. Foreign graduates of American universities simply have to be given the opportunity to pursue U.S. citizenship. Beyond that, we must move from passively opening our arms to immigrants to actively seeking them.

Let’s start by making sure that graduates of elite foreign universities who receive degrees in mathematics, science or engineering can immigrate to the U.S. if they so choose. Every U.S. Embassy should work with the private sector to continuously identify and recruit local talent. Such initiatives won’t only bring talent here—they will allow us to deny it to our competitors.

Immigrants also create backward linkages to their native lands, facilitating investment abroad and attracting foreign direct investment to the U.S. Additional foreign capital could be attracted to our shores by expanding the EB-5 program, which provides green cards for immigrants who invest a set amount in the U.S. or create jobs there—and by reforming our broken and backlogged visa system at our consulates abroad to increase travel and tourism opportunities.

For far too long we as a nation have tolerated an ugly nativist strain that dresses itself up with legitimate concerns about security and the breakdown of the rule of law. This is nothing new. It wasn’t long ago that “Irish need not apply” signs dotted Boston, and laws in some places banned speaking German. But we would be fools not to learn from our history, since our competitors—like Singapore, which is working to attract immigrants—surely are.

Republican leaders at the Tampa convention have a real opening through the platform committee to project immigration reform as central to a 21st century economic vision. This isn’t just good policy. It’s also good politics.

Mr. Huntsman is a former governor of Utah and was a Huntsman Corporation executive and U.S. ambassador to China and Singapore.

A version of this article appeared August 26, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A GOP Opportunity on Immigration.

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