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Opinion Editorial -- USA Today -- Immigration Source of Economic Prosperity

Monday, December 8, 2014

Op-Ed by U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker

Opinion Editorial, USA Today
Immigration Source of Economic Prosperity

The history of the United States has been built on the stories of immigrants who came to this country with little more than a strong work ethic and the desire for a better life. Just like many Americans, my own family made their way to the U.S. in search of greater opportunity and freedoms. 

My great-grandfather was dirt poor at the age of 10 when his family fled oppression in Ukraine, bound for the United States. He taught himself English, worked several jobs, earned his legal degree at night, and opened a law practice at the age of 30. 

In the process of building businesses and achieving financial security for his family, my great-grandfather helped bring prosperity to his community in Chicago. His mother helped create a "nickel club," in which she and her neighbors donated their change each week to help care for other newcomers as they found their footing. This, too, is a critical part of America's immigration story: every new generation has done its part to advance progress and prosperity for their families, their communities, and the entire United States. 

The current chapter of American history is no different. In 2011, immigrants started 28% of all new U.S. businesses, while only accounting for 13% of the population. One study a few years ago found that more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies, including Google, Yahoo!, and Home Depot, were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Despite these contributions, too often our failed immigration policies have been a roadblock for those eager to make a new start in America. 

Aspiring entrepreneurs and established business owners are frustrated by our broken immigration system, which allows us to educate and train many talented individuals in the United States and then forces us to send them back home. Our current system forces good talent into the shadows or to leave our country altogether. The need to overhaul our immigration policies is a common refrain in the business community. In my tenure as secretary of Commerce, I have met with more than 1,400 CEOs and business leaders across the country, and the overwhelming sentiment is that now is the time to act on commonsense, comprehensive immigration reform. 

Absent congressional action, President Obama has taken bold and decisive steps that will address some of the deficiencies in our immigration system while at the same time helping grow our economy. The economic benefits to fixing our broken immigration system are clear. According to an analysis by the Council of Economic Advisers, the president's actions will boost our gross domestic product by $90 billion to $210 billion over 10 years. 

Policy changes to encourage more innovation are among the most promising improvements facing American businesses and start-ups as a result of immigration reform. It is no secret that our country is suffering from a shortage of workers in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. According to one analysis, only one-third of foreign-born STEM graduates from American universities are able to stay here on temporary work visas. This is bad for our economy and harmful for U.S. leadership in the industries of tomorrow. 

The steps the president has taken will offer these students every incentive to remain in the U.S. Specifically, the Department of Homeland Security will expand and extend the Optional Practical Training program, which currently allows foreign-born STEM students and degree holders to stay in the U.S. for up to 29 months. The new rules surrounding this program will strengthen and extend the program so STEM graduates aren't forced to return home and work for our competitors and is expected to impact tens of thousands of students. 

President Obama's actions will give high-skilled workers here on temporary visas — those who have already been approved for a green card but are stuck in years-long waiting lists — more flexibility to change jobs and employers. This regulatory change will impact about 400,000 workers, most in high-tech fields. And, the administration will expand immigration options for foreign entrepreneurs who meet key criteria for creating jobs, attracting investment, and generating revenue in the U.S. 

The president's actions represent essential steps within his legal authority, but only Congress can truly address the situation. Like President Obama, I firmly believe that these executive actions can — and should — be replaced by comprehensive immigration reform passed by Congress. 

The bottom line is that America needs a smart, effective immigration system that secures our borders, keeps families united, creates opportunities for our workers, and makes sure that every business has the talent it needs. Immigration reform is more than a moral imperative; it is an economic opportunity and a matter of competitiveness for our country.