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Cokie and Steve Roberts: I-Squared legislation makes sense

The gathering debate over immigration reform is really about two different groups. One is the 11 million immigrants who are here illegally. The other was described by President Obama as “the folks who try to come here legally but have a hard time doing so.”

The first group gets most of the publicity, and that’s understandable. The illegals pose a more incendiary and intractable problem and are more consequential politically. Republican hostility toward them is driving Hispanic and Asian voters into Democratic ranks and threatening the GOP with demographic doom.

But legal immigrants are more important to the country’s economic future and deserve equal attention. The current strictures that inhibit investors, inventors and entrepreneurs from settling in the United States might be the single most wrongheaded and self-defeating policy followed by the entire federal government. And that’s saying something.

Every serious study shows that immigrants are job makers, not job takers. The nativists who resisted newcomers throughout our history have always been wrong, and they’re wrong today. Immigrants are far more likely than homegrown workers to start businesses and secure patents. The Kauffman Foundation concludes that 52 percent of Silicon Valley startups were “immigrant-founded,” and that list includes Google and Yahoo, Intel and Instagram.

Instead of welcoming these economic dynamos, we’re driving them away. “Right now,” the president said recently in Nevada, “there are brilliant students from all over the world sitting in classrooms at our top universities. They’re earning degrees in the fields of the future, like engineering and computer science. But once they finish school, once they earn that diploma, there’s a good chance they’ll have to leave our country. Think about that.”

We have, and it’s sickening. Countries like Australia, Germany and Canada are taking advantage of our idiocy by enticing these brilliant students with offers of rapid residency and citizenship. Other grads are simply going home, to China, India and the Philippines, where a rising middle class is making life a lot more comfortable than it was a generation ago.

“When America turns away a potential investor, entrepreneur or job creator, that person does not simply cease to exist,” warns the R Street Institute, a pro-business think tank. “She returns to her own country and starts a business that competes directly with American companies. And she hires citizens of her own country instead of Americans.”

Fortunately, smart lawmakers in both parties are confronting the issue. Currently only 65,000 work permits, called H-1B visas, are available annually for foreign-born grads, and they are snapped up quickly in most years. A bipartisan measure, the Immigration Innovation Act, or “I-Squared,” would raise that cap considerably, to 300,000 in years of rapid economic growth. Moreover, visa holders would find it easier to change jobs and their spouses would be allowed to work, a critical factor in retaining young, two-professional families.

Obtaining a green card and permanent residency presents an even tougher obstacle course than getting a work visa. That’s especially true for immigrants from populous countries such as China and India, because employment-related permits are subject to strict national quotas. I-Squared would end those quotas, expand the total number of green cards and create new exceptions for “outstanding professors and researchers.” The bill shrewdly recognizes the political pressures to produce more homegrown science and engineering whizzes, so it would impose a fee on applicants for H-1B visas and use the revenue to support local educational efforts in those fields.

The I-Squared legislation makes total sense.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at