An agreement not only makes sound economic sense, but would also strengthen the foundation of U.S.-India relations.
From the maelstrom of legislative gridlock that is Washington, at least one ray of bipartisan comity has emerged. In a nearly unanimous vote, the House of Representatives has passed a bill to allow more skilled immigrants from India and China to become legal permanent residents. At a time of rising protectionist sentiments, the move is important recognition that U.S. economic vitality requires greater access to the global pool of human capital.
The bill is now being considered by the Senate. Its arrival is particularly timely. The United States has been able to maintain its global preeminence in no small part due to the influx of foreign science and engineering professionals and students. High-skilled immigrants are a significant driving force of American prosperity and innovation, most famously in Silicon Valley. Research indicates, for instance, that Indian immigrant entrepreneurs play a leading role in founding some of the most dynamic high-tech companies.
America’s dependence on foreign-born technology professionals will shortly become all the greater. Since younger native-born workers tend to lack the skill levels of their baby boomer parents now nearing retirement age, the United States could face broad and substantial skill shortages in the coming decade.
But U.S. policymakers should go one step better by signing a bilateral agreement with New Delhi guaranteeing a set number of temporary work visas for high-skill Indian professionals. The U.S. has crafted similar agreements with a select number of other countries, including the TN temporary visa program (created via the North American Free Trade Agreement) that exempts qualified Canadian and Mexican professionals from the annual quota on H-1B work permits.
With India a major source of high-skill professionals and the U.S. needing to draw on foreign talent to fortify its own science and engineering workforce, both countries have a keen mutual interest in cooperating in the area of human capital, the most critical resource in the dawning global innovation economy.
Admittedly, important constituencies in both countries regard the global talent pool as a zero-sum proposition. In the United States, some argue that increased mobility of foreign high-skill workers will displace or depress wages of native professionals. The empirical evidence, however, suggests that greater numbers of talented immigrants actually supports job creation in the United States.
India likewise would stand to benefit from the increased mobility of its technology professionals. Instead of causing “brain drain,” the global innovation economy is actually generating “brain circulation” or a “brain chain,” in which expatriate talent returns home with acquired capital, skills and knowledge, as well as personal links to transnational entrepreneurial and technological networks. Obviously, some of the high-skill Indians who benefit from the bilateral immigration accord will choose to remain permanently in the United States, though they would in time contribute a significant stream of remittance income and serve an important bridging function between Indian innovators and entrepreneurs and those in other countries. But others, empowered by new ideas and experiences, will return in time and play a direct role in the nation’s development.
The United States and India are prime constituents in the brain circulation process. Far from seeing access to the global talent pool as a zero-sum proposition, the interdependency of their skills base requires them to act in a cooperative way. Doing so not only makes sound economic sense, but would also strengthen the foundation of U.S.-India relations.