As President Joe Biden campaigned to defeat former President Donald Trump, he was unequivocal in his support for immigrants and immigration. Biden called America a “nation of immigrants” and promised to reform the temporary visa system to make it easier for highly skilled immigrants to stay in the United States. Over two years into his term, this has not happened. Despite attempts in his proposed budget, Biden has not yet increased funding for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that processes green cards and visas for immigrants, leading to a mounting backlog and longer wait times. He also hasn’t prioritized legislation to raise the national green card caps that restrict skilled immigration, nor has he pressured Congress to increase the H-1B visa cap for high-tech workers or reformed the program as he promised in his campaign.
This is disappointing because immigration is crucial to American innovation and progress. Immigrant inventors are more productive than American ones, with one study by the National Bureau of Economic Research finding immigrants — just 16% of inventors — are responsible for 36% of the nation’s innovation. Close to two-thirds of U.S. startups worth over $1 billion, known as unicorns, were started by immigrants or children of immigrants, according to a National Foundation for American Policy brief. Furthermore, immigrants and their children founded 43% of companies in the 2017 Fortune 500 index, including well-known companies like Alphabet and Tesla. Without immigrants, these companies and the jobs and value they represent wouldn’t exist. One analysis conducted by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Census Bureau found that immigrants create far more jobs than they take. Another analysis from the Brookings Institute found that the interconnectedness of the immigrant workforce supports millions of American jobs. Additionally, immigrants have been key to scientific innovation and discovery. They have won a disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics and medicine. The leading producers of the COVID-19 vaccine — Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna — were each founded by immigrants. The list goes on.
Many of the reasons often cited to oppose immigration are, at best, shaky. On no issue does every economist agree, and immigration is no exception. However, a 2014 economic review by University of California, Davis economics professor Giovanni Peri concluded that immigrants do not significantly reduce wages in the short run and may even boost them in the long run — a finding that has been corroborated by other economic studies. Meanwhile, the infamous 2017 study by Harvard economist George Borjas, which was cited by conservatives to justify their immigration policies, was deeply flawed in the way it handled its data. These new findings may be one reason why the labor movement has reversed its anti-immigration positions. Many Americans also think increasing immigration leads to increasing crime, but studies have found that immigration may actually reduce crime rates — or at least does not increase them.
While the net benefits of immigration are clear, it’s easy to see why Biden might be hesitant about making or calling for some of the immigration reforms he supported in his campaign. Immigration is a deeply polarizing issue for a country that Biden promised to unite, and he may take a political hit if he attempts to pass these reforms. However, this should not deter him. For one thing, it's not clear what the political impact of increased immigration would be; Biden’s more progressive immigration policies like his 100-day deportation moratorium and raising the refugee cap to 125,000 didn’t correlate to a significant hit in his approval rating. Rather, his approval rating has been much more closely tied to factors like the economy, inflation and gas prices. In fact, given the strength of this correlation, the benefit Biden will get from more skilled immigrants improving the economy may outweigh the negatives of political attacks in response to the move. It is also worth noting this is an ideal time for more immigration, as it could help fix the labor shortage, especially in critical places like nursing homes, meaning Biden can cite meaningful and practical reasons for changing immigration laws.
Nothing in politics is a guarantee, but the political fallout of enacting reforms to increase immigration is uncertain enough that Biden should not hesitate if he thinks it is good policy, and as he demonstrated on the campaign trail, he clearly does. It is time for Biden to drop the malarkey and live up to his word, for immigrants and for America.