The Case for Reform

Some of the most ambitious and intelligent people in the world immigrate to the United States—particularly those who are unsatisfied with opportunities available to them in their home countries. While they come to the United States to build their new futures, these immigrants also bring tremendous value to the U.S. economy in terms of innovation and job creation. For instance, more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants or their children. Every year, immigrants file a disproportionately-large number of patents with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office compared to their native counterparts.

Overwhelming evidence indicates that immigrants who are most likely to be job creators and innovators are also those who qualify for merit-based visas. Many countries have designed their visa programs to capitalize on the skills of those seeking residency. For example, 62 percent of permanent-resident visas in Canada are awarded based on skill. Canada’s strong economy attracts talent from all over the world, and its visa structure allows it to keep that talent.

The United States’ visa system, however, is not currently built to maximize the global talent funnel. Most legal immigrants come to the United States on student visas. Rather than realizing the mutual benefit of merit-based visas, America loses its return on investment when these educated and driven immigrants are often compelled to leave the country to work. It’s almost a double negative: student visas award precious post-graduate admissions spots to international students and then do not allow them to stay in the country to contribute to the economy. Essentially, the current system promotes involuntary human capital flight since many foreign graduates cannot remain in the U.S.

This loss of human capital is particularly prevalent in vital STEM fields. At this point, a full 40 percent of Stanford engineering graduate degrees are earned by international students. Because of caps on U.S. merit-based visas, most of these students leave the U.S. to work. Ironically, many graduates of American universities move to Canada to work for American companies because it is too time-consuming and expensive for American companies to hire foreign graduates in their U.S. offices and sponsor visas.

The laws surrounding legal immigration are understandably contentious. Critics on both sides of the immigration aisle cite statistics regarding crime rate, quality of life, national security, national identity, and workforce competition to defend their points of view. While arguments anchored in moral and social analyses are often persuasive, the most compelling arguments consistently show up in economic terms.

In addition to increasing the numbers of educated, working citizens, a more reasonable U.S. immigration process would bring another major economic benefit: labor influx. We stand to save significant money just by matching workers with jobs that otherwise go unfilled due to lack of qualified or interested applicants. Unfilled job openings at the end of January 2015 will cost the U.S. economy an estimated $160 billion over the course of a year. By improving our immigration policies and processes, we could dramatically reduce wasted funds and invest in growth.

The United States is missing out on a great deal of talent and economic benefit due to current immigration policy limitations. By providing necessary visas and residency to immigrants through a more streamlined and merit-based process, the U.S. can ensure that individuals, organizations, and society as a whole benefit economically from immigration.

This post is part of an ongoing series of data-driven commentary on current events. It was originally published in the Zion’s Bank Economic Outlook Newsletter and the Deseret News.

Randy Shumway

Founder and Chairman

Randy Shumway founded Cicero Group ( in 2001. It began humbly, with four people working out of Randy’s house. At the beginning of 2017, when Randy stepped down as CEO, Cicero had grown to a highly-respected, global management consulting firm.

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