Politicians need to shout about the benefits of skilled immigration

If you’ve ever completed a captcha security verification test on a computer or are learning a foreign language on the Duolingo app (options include Spanish, Korean, or High Valyrian from game of Thrones), then you probably owe this experience to an immigrant named Luis von Ahn.

Born in Guatemala City, Von Ahn moved to the United States for university and has built his career in the country. As a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, he created the reCaptcha anti-fraud test with squiggly letters Bought by Google in 2009. He then founded Duolingo, which now employs 600 people and has a market value of $3.1 billion.

On a recent trip to London, von Ahn made a convincing case for the economic benefits of skilled immigration, which he himself embodies. Amid increasing talk of competition from China, a population of 1.4 billion, von Ahn says: “China probably has more people in the 90th percentile of intelligence than the entire UK population. I think the only way to compete with them is to be open to the best minds in the world.”

The political debate on immigration in both the US and UK is dominated by those who rail against the influx of illegal immigrants via the Rio Grande or the English Channel. Opinion polls show that many voters share these concerns. However, what too often gets lost in this highly charged discussion are the real economic benefits that skilled immigrants bring to their host countries. But this argument is also finding increasing public recognition and support.

In the UK, public attitudes towards immigration have warmed since the 2016 Brexit vote. An Ipsos poll released last month found that 46 percent of respondents thought immigration had had a positive impact on the country, versus 29 percent who said it had had a negative impact. This compares to 35 percent positive and 41 percent negative when the Tracker survey started in 2015.

As is well documented, skilled immigrants have had a tremendous impact on the tech industry on the US West Coast, particularly from India and China. Foreign-born entrepreneurs founded 55 percent of US startups valued at more than $1 billion, according to a July report by the nonprofit National Foundation for American Policy. It’s similar in the UK, albeit on a smaller scale: 18 percent of fast-growing tech companies were founded by a foreign-born founder, according to TechNation.

Immigrants have long been a powerful, risk-taking entrepreneurial force in the US, says AnnaLee Saxenian, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written extensively on Silicon Valley culture. When they struggled to gain entry to the “old white boys” club on Sand Hill Road that has historically controlled the West Coast venture capital industry, they formed their own professional networks.

“Migration is a risk-taking activity,” she says. “They are a select group who are brave, highly qualified and often come to the US to attend graduate school. We get the elites.”

Unfortunately, immigration rhetoric has turned ugly in both countries and the doors have closed to skilled immigrants and foreign students. This has not gone unnoticed in Canada and France, both of which have increased their efforts to woo potential entrepreneurs who would otherwise have gone to the US or the UK.

The UK government has introduced a qualified visa regime welcomed by tech companies, but it hasn’t changed the perception that the country is unwelcoming. Lord Simon Wolfson, a Conservative colleague who has backed Brexit, has urged the government to attract more foreign workers. The choice, he told the BBC, is between an open free trade nation and a “fortress Britain” – which is not the post-Brexit country he and many Brexit voters would have liked.

Opening the US to more skilled immigration is high on the wish list of reforms advocated by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington-based policy institute. Despite all the talk about America’s state of emergency, the US has become “very lazy” about renewing the lifeblood of that state of emergency by attracting talented immigrants, says John Lettieri, president of EIG. “If necessary, we can frame immigration as a ruthless self-interested policy. We can acquire in terms of global talent,” he says.

Whatever the context of the debate, there is a compelling case for welcoming more skilled foreign workers in both the US and the UK. More and more voters seem willing to listen. Politicians need to be braver.

john.thornhill@ft.com

https://www.ft.com/content/927cf298-b6db-4002-9939-8beb5a3e5dea Politicians need to shout about the benefits of skilled immigration

Adam Bradshaw

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