There is much controversy surrounding foreign immigrants in the work force. According to one side, immigrants are necessary to maintain our competitive edge in technical fields. According to the other, they drag us down by pushing qualified native workers into other fields. It’s a complicated issue, and both sides may be partially right.

Immigrant Labor Innovates
Are foreign workers the future of innovation in America? It really depends on how you look at it. From one angle, it seems obvious that the answer is yes. They are the future of innovation in America because they are the future or labor in America. America has an aging workforce. As the Baby Boom generation retires, there are not enough up and coming workers to take their place. We need immigrant workers to take up the slack. Without them, we will not have the workers to fill our high tech positions.

Immigrants do innovate. They are responsible for most of the patent applications from major universities in the US. Some of those innovators turn entrepreneur and start companies to produce and sell their innovations. Immigrants founded or cofounded several of the best-known names in technology. Founding companies creates jobs and builds opportunity for more innovation.

Immigrant labor displaces native talent.
Despite the claims of labor shortages that require hiring immigrant workers, there is not much evidence that a shortage exists. There are plenty of students graduating with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degrees. The problem is, they don’t stay in STEM when they go to graduate school. Instead they go into business or law.

There is a reason STEM students decide to change their field of study when they go to graduate school. Salaries in STEM have stagnated for several years, especially starting salaries graduates can expect. It is no surprise that students become discouraged with their chosen field and decide to change. To claim that demand for STEM workers is high and qualified candidates are hard to find is delusional at best, flat out deceptive at worst. A field that is in high demand does not see flat salaries. It sees increasing pay and companies fighting to attract workers. Immigrant workers are damaging to innovation because they discourage Americans from seeking STEM jobs.

One justification for issuing more visas to foreign workers is that immigrants are more likely to start companies than their native born counterparts. But are the companies they start the kind of companies that maintain and increase the stature of the US in STEM fields? In many cases they aren’t. A large percentage of businesses started by immigrants granted visas for STEM jobs aren’t related to STEM fields at all. Is that helping us?

One Thing Is for Certain
There are compelling arguments on both sides of this issue. To make the right decision on the direction we will take on immigration it will be necessary to shut down the hype and emotion and look at the actual data showing how immigration affects the economy. Doing it any other way allows fear mongering to control the debate. Allowing fear to control policy is a sure path to disaster.