A Smarter Policy For Immigration

The world's best and brightest are being kept out of America by ill-conceived, poorly implemented measures to thwart terrorism. Students who want to study, scientists who want to do research, and skilled legal immigrants who want to work can't get in. No one can question America's right after September 11 to keep potential terrorists from crossing the border. But any policymaker trying to promote economic growth and any CEO attempting to spur innovation and profits should be deeply concerned about the downturn in the numbers of educated, skilled foreigners moving to America. It's time for the U.S. to restructure its visa and immigration policies.

Witness the shocking statistics: The number of student visas issued by the U.S. dropped 25% in 2002 and 10% last year, according to a new Homeland Security report, the 2003 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Some 35% of all student visa applications were rejected outright in 2003. The total number of immigrants granted the right to stay in the U.S. fell 24% in 2003. The number of foreigners with advanced degrees or exceptional skills allowed into the U.S. dropped by 65%, to 15,459, last year.

The State Dept. must hire more officers who speak foreign languages to fill their consulates overseas. Since September 11, students must wait months, if not years, to pass tougher screening. Having more officials to interview students would speed the process. For scientists and engineers with proven reputations, multiple-entry, long-term visas are the ticket.

The hardest challenge facing the U.S. is reshaping immigration policy for the 21st century. In 2003, 70% of the more than 700,000 legal immigrants were family-sponsored, up from 63% the year before. Only 12% of admissions were for skilled workers, down from 16% the year before. A more judicious policy, with half the slots going to skilled workers and professionals, would strengthen America's competitiveness, promote entrepreneurship, and boost growth. Unless the U.S. changes its immigration polices, it risks losing the world's sharpest minds to those countries more willing to welcome them. That would be a shame.

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