Get the Think newsletter.
By Sen. Trent Lott

Innovation is the lifeblood of American wealth and economic success. Immigrants, for instance, created 25 percent of all new high-technology companies over the period 2006 through 2012, accounting for $63 billion in sales. And, according to a 2016 economic study by the National Academy of Sciences, an immigrant who comes to the United States at age 25 with a college degree will pay $504,000 more in U.S. taxes than they consume in government services. For a high-skilled immigrant with an advanced degree, the fiscal surplus is almost $1 million.

That is why, as President Donald Trump has looked for new ways to spur economic growth, his Administration and my former colleagues in Congress should have embrace an “America First” policy that supports high-skilled immigration.

Unfortunately, that does not yet seem to be the case: In the wake of Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order in April 2017, the U.S. government appears to have denied 41 percent more applications for H1-B visas — issued for highly-skilled workers, sponsored by U.S. employers, and always temporary — and demanded more information from 69 percent of applicants, an unusual surge that can cause major disruptions. The Department of Homeland Security announced more changes in a letter to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in April 2018.

But as our political leaders continue to engage in heated debates around immigration, the Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress should not conflate legal and illegal immigration, discarding the benefits of one while seeking to fix the other.

When I served as Senate, including as Majority Leader, I worked on common-sense solutions to fix our immigration issues – including a proposed expansion to the H1-B program. So I know that short-sighted efforts to impose even stricter constraints on the H1-B visas stifles innovation and hurts the U.S. economy. With record low unemployment levels and a growing skills gap among America’s native-born workforce, we need an “America First” immigration policy that truly appreciates the strategically important value of high-skilled immigration.

The majority of high-skilled immigrants coming into our country hold advanced degrees and work in highly specialized fields, such as STEM while, in the United States, we are experiencing a “skills gap” where jobs are remaining permanently unfilled due to a lack of U.S. talent.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, by 2020 there will be 1.4 million more software development jobs than qualified U.S. applicants. In recent months alone, the number of U.S. openings in that industry rose to 6.7 million — even though there were 6.3 million Americans who were unemployed. When U.S. companies are unable to fill STEM positions, it’s imperative that we have access to the best-and-brightest global talent, and the transfer of high-skilled specialist workers to the U.S. is one of the greatest transfers of wealth in the world, allowing our economy to grow stronger.

The sad reality is that, as a nation, the United States is not currently producing the high-skilled talent in science, engineering and other specialist fields that we need to compete in the global economy, and we cannot wait a generation to do so. An “America First” immigration policy, then, would recognize the value of high-skilled immigrants — not to mention the economic and national security threat posed by China, the E.U. and other nations having a competitive advantage over the U.S. in terms of attracting high-skilled talent.

Before he became President Trump’s Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers Kevin Hassett argued in a 2013 paper published by the American Enterprise institute and has stated repeatedly that we need more highly skilled immigrants, not less. He also pointed out “that immigrants make up a small percentage of the workforce compared to other international economies.”

Most importantly, the age profile of high-skilled immigrants is also strategically important, as most immigrants come to the U.S. between the ages of 16 and 35, which means that the U.S. economy will get most of the benefits of their labor plus the return on their education.

According to a recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy, skilled immigrants have raised wages for American works and significantly increased the number of U.S. jobs being created in STEM. That belies the argument of some immigration opponents, who have claimed that H1-B workers displace American workers.

Getting tough on illegal immigration makes sense for both our economy and national security, but we should not reduce the number of skilled immigrants. President Trump has repeatedly said that we must build a wall and that it must have a “big beautiful door” right in the middle for the high-skilled immigrants who make our country great. With that in mind, an “America First” immigration policy should increase, not decrease, the number of H1-B visas that allow highly skilled workers to come to this country.

Trent Lott is senior counsel at Squire Patton Boggs. He previously served as U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Senate Republican Whip and House Republican Whip.