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Immigration is the Father of Invention

Friday, June 29, 2012

If necessity is the mother of an invention, then one could argue that its father is immigration. Or at least that’s the case that a new report from the Partnership for a New American Economy strongly makes. (

The report, titled “Patent Pending: How Immigrants are Reinventing the American Economy,” highlights the centrality of one of the crown jewels of innovation: the American research university. Across the nation, foreign-born faculty, postdoctoral fellows, researchers and students play an invaluable role in invention and innovation, generating a well-spring of patents and breakthroughs that are an important cornerstone of the U.S. economy. In fact, from 1985 to 2008, there was a five-fold increase in patents awarded to American colleges and research universities. However, the report reminds us that these talented contributors to our economic well-being continue to face daunting hurdles to remaining in the U.S.

The authors of the report examined the top ten research universities and university systems that were assigned the most patents in 2011, and their findings are startling. For instance, of the patents awarded to these research institutions, 76% had at least one foreign-born inventor. And the international diversity of these inventors is impressive: The nearly 1,500 patents awarded to these universities were from 88 different countries.

Once they leave the university, many of these graduates go on to make an important impact on the economy. Many of them go on to create start-ups that employ American workers. Even if they don’t go on to form their own enterprises, they still produce a positive effect on employment here. The report notes a joint study from the American Enterprise Institute and the Partnership for a New American Economy, which found that on average, a foreign-born graduate with an advanced degree from a U.S. university working in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) creates 2.62 American jobs. This is yet another compelling piece of the greater economic immigration puzzle, in which foreign-born innovators were instrumental in founding 25% of all new high-tech companies between 1995 to 2005, creating 450,000 jobs.

However, the picture for last year’s immigrant innovators is not all rosy. The report found that 54% of all patents were given to those foreign inventors most likely to face visa restrictions: students, postdoctoral fellows, and staff researchers. Given their critical importance to American innovation and job creation, the report offers three key suggestions to reform immigration and maintain our competitive advantage. First, offer green cards to foreign nationals who are graduates of STEM fields. Of the patents noted in the report, 99% were from STEM fields at American research universities. Second, create a startup visa. At present, there is no visa for foreign entrepreneurs, backed by millions in startup capital from U.S. investors, who want to launch companies that would employ Americans. Finally, raise or remove the H-1B cap. The H-1B specialty occupation visa is frequently the only option for STEM graduates from abroad, and the annual 65,000 cap is typically exhausted within a short time when its window is active.

Necessity and immigration have become prolific parents of invention and innovation for our country. Now all we need are changes to current immigration laws to enable the foreign sons and daughters behind many of these discoveries to remain here to contribute even more to our nation while creating jobs for Americans.

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