Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Staple Those Green Cards!

In a recent speech to Latino leaders, Mitt Romney said: "If you get an advanced degree, we want you to stay here. So I'd staple a green card to the diploma of someone who gets an advanced degree in America." A year ago, Barack Obama said he was all for "encouraging foreign students to stay in the U.S. and contribute to our economy by stapling a green card to the diplomas" of those with advanced degrees in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math).

That's not a misprint. The two presidential candidates used virtually the same language and weren't advertising an office supply company. Though they quarrel about everything else, they agree on reforming the current immigration system to make it easier for talented foreign-born students to stay in this country and give us the benefit of their energy, ideas and investment.

At a time of sluggish job growth and persistent unemployment, here is one policy change that could clearly make a difference. Yet it does not happen. That is silly, stupid, self-defeating -- perhaps the best example of how the legislative system places political game-playing ahead of the national interest.

A vast amount of public debate is focused these days on illegal immigration, a wedge issue that Democrats think can mobilize the critical Hispanic vote in November. Legal immigration is equally important -- maybe more important -- yet it receives almost no attention. That has to change.

Start with the economics. The myth that foreign-born workers take jobs from Americans is totally false, especially in high-tech fields. A recent report by the Partnership for a New American Economy concludes that the U.S. faces a shortfall of 230,000 "qualified advanced-degree STEM workers by 2018" and that "foreign-born workers must fill the gap between jobs available and the workers needed to do those jobs."

These newcomers don't just fill jobs; they create them. The partnership, a bipartisan group of political and business leaders, estimates that every 100 foreign-born workers create an additional 86 jobs among U.S. workers. The Kauffman Foundation reports that in 2011, immigrants were more than twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans. A Duke University study says immigrants helped start more than a quarter of the technology and engineering companies established over a 10-year period.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, national policy makes it harder, not easier, for these job generators to live and work here. Every year, 65,000 H1-B work visas are made available to foreigners on April 1. This year they were all snapped up in 10 weeks, so anyone who applied after June 11 was out of luck.

But even those fortunate enough to get work visas find it extremely difficult to convert those temporary permits into permanent green cards and, eventually, U.S. citizenship. Under the current crazy law, no country of origin can account for more than 7 percent of all new green-card holders in a single year. That means natives of huge nations such as India and China have to wait five to eight years or longer, an intolerable penalty that makes them prime targets for other countries -- from Canada to Germany -- offering quicker and friendlier immigration opportunities.

In a report titled "Not Coming to America," the partnership documented how effective these countries are at poaching American-trained entrepreneurs. Poyan Rajamand, a Swedish-born graduate of the Stanford School of Business, explained why he and his wife settled in Singapore: "We found the whole visa system here to be extremely easy ... It's how you imagine the U.S. once was: There's a real energy here around attracting the world's best and brightest."

Losing the "best and the brightest" is nothing short of a national tragedy, and fortunately, a few lawmakers from both parties understand that. Senate Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Jerry Moran of Kansas recently joined Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Mark Warner of Virginia in introducing a measure called "Startup Act 2.0." Among its provisions: two new visa categories for STEM grads and immigrant entrepreneurs, plus an end to the per-country limits on new green cards.

As Moran put it: "Our bipartisan economic growth plan sets out to prove the critics wrong. Congress can get something done during an election year by coming together to strengthen the economy and create jobs."

Let's hope he's right. This one is a no-brainer. In a global marketplace, the "best and the brightest" can go anywhere. We have to make sure they stay here. Our economic future depends on it.

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