It’s the Economy, Stupid! Mayor Michael Bloomberg

October 20th, 2011

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered the keynote address at the Immigration and American Competitiveness Conference sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Partnership for a New American Economy on September 29, 2011. This is a condensed version of the speech, reprinted with permission.

We all know from our Partnership for a New American Economy, which is the name of this organization that we have formed of business leaders and mayors from across the country, there is an emerging consensus between Democratic and Republican mayors and business leaders on how to tackle immigration reform. And it boils down to a saying that once again will define a presidential election: It is the economy, stupid.

As the two parties are locked in a stand-off over how to create jobs, immigration reform based on our national economic needs offers a unique opportunity, I think, to both of them. It does not require either party to walk away from its position on taxes or spending.

Instead, the two parties could produce legislation that is consistent with their political principles, that reflects sound economics, that would put thousands of Americans back to work and that would be popular with voters back home.

And today, I’d like to talk with you about four ideas that I think should form the basis of that legislation. They are not a panacea – there is no such thing. But there is no doubt they would strengthen our economy, and put us on track to create the jobs that our country needs.

Align visa distribution to economic needs

Allocating only 15 percent of visas based on economics is just terrible public policy – and it really is holding our economy back. In today’s global marketplace, we cannot afford to keep turning away those with skills that our country needs to grow and to succeed. It is sabotaging our own economy. I’ve called it national suicide – and I think it really is.

That’s why I think we should dramatically expand the numbers of green cards available for the best of the best – the highest-skilled workers we need to join the U.S. economy permanently. These high-skill workers will not only help create thousands of jobs, they’ll also give us knowledge of foreign markets that will help U.S. businesses increase their exports.

One study found that a one percent increase in immigrants working in managerial and professional jobs leads to a three percent increase in U.S. exports to their home country.

Foreign students in technical fields should be eligible to work here permanently

Foreign students account for nearly two-thirds of those who earn a computer-science or engineering Ph.D. from a U.S. institution – two-thirds. These are the individuals who make the discoveries and innovations that propel business and create jobs for Americans. And they’re already here on our soil.

But when they graduate, our immigration system has no permanent path designed for them. After a brief grace period to stay and work, our laws allow most of them only cumbersome temporary visas and a long, uncertain path to a green card, limited by a tangle of restrictive rules and quotas.

Turning these students out of the country is, to put it bluntly, about the dumbest thing that we could possibly do. Other countries are bending over backwards to attract these students. The fact is: there is no such thing as too many engineers, too many scientists, or too many technological innovators. We need all of them in this country.

Stop turning away entrepreneurs

Immigrants are more than twice as likely as those born in America to start a new company – and a recent study shows that U.S. job creation in the last 30 years is entirely attributable to startup companies.

One-quarter of U.S. engineering and technology companies started during the dot-com boom had a foreign-born founder; 40 percent of all venture-backed, high-tech companies successful enough to conduct a public stock offering had an immigrant founder. And out of last year’s Fortune 500, including many longstanding giants of American business, more than 40 percent were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Our immigration system has no real path for foreign entrepreneurs, even if they have a bright business idea that has already attracted investors. So these entrepreneurs are finding other countries that are smart enough to take them and their new businesses. And to double the pain, U.S. capital – capital that could have seeded economic growth here at home – disappears overseas with them.

This is just craziness – but we can stop it by offering a conditional visa to immigrants who have capital to back their business ventures. If their new company successfully creates jobs for American workers, the entrepreneur would receive a green card to stay and grow the business into the future.

America already has some of the most enterprising individuals on Earth, but entrepreneurs are like engineering Ph.D.’s and computer scientists: You just can’t have enough of them, particularly when we have an enormous number of people unemployed in this country. People say, ‘Why bring more immigrants into this country when you have unemployed?’ Because that’s the solution to the unemployment problem in this country – more jobs being created by more businesses.

Expand and streamline our existing tools for attracting talent to our country

Temporary visas like the H-1B program help fill critical gaps in our workforce, but the numbers are too few and the filing process too long and unpredictable. This leads to critical shortfalls not only in the software industry, but also in fields like engineering, electronics, pharmaceuticals, medical research, and aerospace. This is just absurd to deny American companies access to the workers they need.

Now the government doesn’t know how many skilled workers are needed each year –only the market does. So let the markets work. And you can do that by eliminating the cap on H-1B visas.

Another arbitrary cap we should eliminate at the same time is the one that limits employment green-cards by country. Right now, Iceland gets the same quota as India. It just makes no sense.

Why should we care what country a skilled immigrant comes from? These quotas mean that high-skill employees from China and India can face a wait of up to ten years for a green card – and during that time, they are prohibited from getting a promotion or taking a new job. No wonder why many return home.

That’s a loss not only for American companies that invest in them, but for our entire economy – because they return home to help our competitors, these other countries.

Putting the nation’s future at risk

Each of the four steps that I’ve just outlined would help the U.S. economy and the American worker. Each would create more jobs. And if we don’t take them, we not only will be undermining our economy – we are putting our nation’s future at risk.

Now, with too few jobs to go around today, why should we let people from overseas compete for slots that could go to U.S. workers? I just want to repeat the real facts here.

As the data clearly show, immigrants don’t take away jobs; they make jobs – and that is especially true for high-skilled immigrants. For example, one study has shown that for every H-1B position, U.S. technology companies increase their employment by five workers.

And it’s not that the U.S. workforce doesn’t already have many extraordinary individuals, but the global economy is changing everything. People and resources are moving more freely than ever before. Offices and factories can increasingly do the same work anywhere. And information technology is creating unprecedented cross-border opportunities.

And as a result, America no longer is the inevitable crossroads for enterprise and innovation. Countries from Asia to South America now beckon with opportunity. So the United States simply has to compete like never before for talent. That’s a competition we can win if we work at it – and we must win if we are going to remain the world’s strongest economy, and a beacon of hope for people around the world.

America has always been that beacon. Exactly one month from today, New York City and the entire country will mark the 125th anniversary of America’s greatest monument, the Statue of Liberty. Since 1886, Lady Liberty’s torch has brought light to the darkest corners of the earth, beckoning to our shores all those ‘yearning to breathe free.’

Yet it is not Lady Liberty’s torch or her crown or her broken chains that have inspired so much awe: it is her location. The power of her symbol lies in the reality of New York City as a gateway – a golden door – to the land of opportunity that is the United States of America. That reality is our history. But it also must be our future.

We desperately need immigrants who want to come here to work, who have the skills our companies need to succeed. The American dream cannot survive if we keep telling the dreamers to go elsewhere.

Today, we may have turned away the next Albert Einstein or Sergey Brin. Tomorrow, we may turn away the next Levi Strauss or Oscar de la Renta.

And we certainly will be turning away many of the people who – like my ancestors and no doubt many of yours – came to this country with almost nothing, except one thing: A desire to work – and work and work and work – to build a better life for themselves and their families.

To read the complete speech, click here.

Michael R. Bloomberg was elected the 108th Mayor of the City of New York in 2001. He began his career in 1966 at Salomon Brothers, and after being let go in 1981, he began Bloomberg LP, a start-up financial news and information company that now has more than 11,000 employees around the world. As Mayor, Bloomberg has cut crime 35 percent, revitalized the waterfront, implemented ambitious public health strategies, including the successful ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, and expanded support for arts and culture. His education reforms have driven graduation rates up by 40 percent since 2005.

The Mayor’s economic policies have helped New York City avoid the level of job losses that many other cities experienced. Since October 2009, the nation has gained back only one out of every four jobs that were lost in the national recession. Meanwhile, New York City has gained back nearly all of its lost jobs. Mayor Bloomberg attended Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Business School, and is the father of two daughters, Emma and Georgina.

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