A few years ago, Penn State professor and international consultant Fariborz Ghadar had a teaching assistant who hailed from India. The young man had a degree from Penn State's Smeal College of Business and “knows IT inside and out,” Ghadar said.
In the not-too-distant past, seeking to stay in the U.S. would have been a no-brainer. But Ghadar's assistant didn't want to fight for a scarce H-1B visa. Moreover, a job back home would give him more purchasing power. He eventually took an offer from Honeywell International Inc. to manage a call center in India.
"This repeats itself over and over again," Ghadar said.
In a world economy driven by high-tech advances, it's vital for countries to attract the best and brightest people from around the world. Unfortunately, the U.S. is losing out to other nations in the race to attract immigrant talent, said Ghadar, the founding director of Penn State's Center for Global Business Studies.
Americans think "we are the country where everybody wants to come," he said, but "the statistics no longer bear that out."
The U.S. still leads the world in raw numbers of immigrants, with about 1 million a year, according to the intergovernmental agency the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. However, countries with friendlier policies have larger percentages of foreign-born residents. In Canada and Australia, immigrants' share of the population totals 20 percent and 26 percent, respectively, Ghadar said.
Moreover, immigrants in those countries have more education. Nearly half of Canada's immigrants have the equivalent of an associate degree or better, compared with 35 percent in the U.S., according to Brookings Institute research that Ghadar cited.
American companies can't get access to the people they need, Ghadar said. Without fundamental policy reform, "we risk our own potential downfall in the long run," he wrote in an article for CNN.
Many midstate businesses and educational institutions would like to see a relaxation of restrictions on high-skill immigrants and foreign students, said Silas Ruiz-Steele, an attorney who chairs the immigration practice at Barley Snyder, a Central Pennsylvania firm with Lancaster, York, Reading, Hanover and Malvern, Chester County, offices.
And low-skilled immigration remains vital to agricultural interests. In the midstate, farmers and food processors advocate an expanded agricultural guest worker program, said Michael Melhorn, owner of MainJoy Unlimited, a Mount Joy-area poultry transport and handling firm.
Americans have been battling over immigration reform since at least 2000, he said, adding: "I believe there is a solution to the problem."
Immigration is a hot topic these days, with both Republicans and Democrats offering proposals for comprehensive reform. The Republican National Committee formally endorsed reform in principle Monday as part of changes designed to increase the party's appeal to minority voters.
People born overseas make up about 5.7 percent of Pennsylvania's population and 7 percent of its workforce, according to federal statistics. Just under half of Pennsylvania's immigrants are naturalized American citizens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In the U.S. as a whole, just under 13 percent of the population is foreign born, and 44 percent of those people are naturalized, according to the Census Bureau.
In professional fields, a lot of talent comes from immigrants, said David Black, president and CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber.
"The country has always benefited from smart people coming here," he said.
Ghadar said he's especially worried about potential skill shortages in the rapidly expanding natural-gas industry. Other countries have shale gas, too, and are just as eager to develop it, he said.
Energy companies working in the Marcellus Shale have to be able to use their best people, Ghadar said.
"We can't afford to have these guys not stay here," he said.
U.S. immigration law is complex, and there are numerous visa categories, Ruiz-Steele said. For immigrants in the professions, H-1B visas are the No. 1 choice. However, H-1B visas are capped at 65,000 per year, and when the economy is healthy, they run out within months, she said.
Immigration opponents often express concerns that immigrants cost Americans jobs. Research on the topic has been mixed, but in general researchers find that American workers are not harmed by immigration, said Natasha Kelemen, executive director of pro-immigration advocacy group the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition.
Only at the lowest skill levels is there some evidence of negative impacts, she said. Immigrants help economies expand; indeed, when states such as Arizona and Alabama start to implement get-tough immigration laws, they often see their economies take a hit, she said.
In the year after Arizona tightened its laws, its economy lost an estimated $253 million, according to the Center for American Progress. Full implementation could cost the two states $48.8 billion and $10.8 billion a year, according to studies reported by Time magazine.
High-skill immigrants are net job creators, Ghadar said. Every startup success or research breakthrough has the potential to grow the economy with new products and services.
Bringing illegal immigrant workers into the legal labor system would benefit native workers, Kelemen said. Unscrupulous employers would no longer be able to shortchange illegal workers on wages and benefits because of their status, she said.
"The current system is benefiting many businesses," she said. "There's a lot of hypocrisy."
Taxes vs. services
Another argument offered by immigration opponents is that illegal immigrants consume more social services than they pay in taxes.
However, that study's conclusions were nuanced. Nationally, immigrants will pay more in taxes over their lifetimes, it found. However, on a short-term basis, and in localities with heavy low-skill immigration, the balance goes the other way, it found.
A 2007 Congressional Budget Office analysis of more than two dozen immigration studies concluded: "Most of the studies that include both revenues and costs for multiple programs show that state and local governments spend more on unauthorized immigrants than they collect in revenues from that population."
Research suffers from many uncertainties, and impacts vary widely across jurisdictions, making definitive conclusions difficult, the CBO stressed.
Voters are open to immigration reform, but they're also wary, said U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, the freshman lawmaker who replaced outgoing six-term U.S. Rep. Todd Platts this year.
They fear the enforcement component will get short shrift, the York County Republican said. On the other hand, there's widespread recognition that the system is broken, and that reasonable reforms are needed, he said.
Revising the H-1B visa system and increasing quotas is "a great opportunity for America," Perry said.
As for the U.S. agriculture guest worker program, it doesn't have quotas, but "it is archaic, it is cumbersome, it is expensive," he said. "It needs to be completely overhauled for it to be a useful program."
So far, Perry said, immigration seems to be of greatest interest to the farming community, but he expects to hear from other constituents in due course.
The current Congress has a unique opportunity to address the issue, he said.
"I think the mood is right," he said.