Why is Immigration Important to Iowa?
I was asked this question recently on a visit to DC by Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS). Senator Moran is an outspoken supporter of skilled immigration and the author of the Startup Act 2.0 and I met him at the Kauffman Foundation’s State of Entrepreneurship launch event. Sharing the presence of immigrants at many critical junctures of our State’s launch, and our continued presence and inflow into the State’s economic drivers – our businesses – made the case to him and he shared a few anecdotes from Kansas. Returning from DC, I had the opportunity to submit an editorial to the Des Moines Register with two leaders of our community – Lori Chesser of Davis Brown Law Firm and Jay Byers of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. The editorial lays out many of the important items for our cities and State and is duplicated below.
Seize the day. That is our recommendation to Iowans — including our congressional delegation — regarding immigration reform.
Our outdated system has long hobbled economic growth nationwide, but nowhere more than in Iowa. Immigration reform is a critical element in building a strong economy and a vibrant culture both now and in the future.
Iowa’s economic success depends largely on our ability to enhance international connectivity to compete in the global marketplace. This includes increasing exports, facilitating foreign direct investment, and attracting top talent.
But the current system impedes growth on all fronts.
Potential trading partners cannot visit the U.S. — or establish branch offices — because of restrictive visa policies. Potential investors are stymied by lack of visas or overly restrictive interpretations of the few visas categories available. Talented students educated at Iowa’s universities — including coveted “STEM” graduates — leave because of a random H-1B visa “cap” and painfully long waiting lines for legal residence.
Entrepreneurship is another key element of a healthy economy, and immigrants have proved to be highly entrepreneurial. A recent study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that almost half of the top 50 venture-backed U.S. companies had at least one immigrant founder. An immigrant-founded venture-backed company creates, on average, 150 jobs.
Again, our current immigration system has few options for company founders, leaving this resource largely untapped. Meanwhile, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Chile have all created programs to attract immigrant entrepreneurs.
Iowa is also an agricultural leader, responsible for the safe production of food both in the U.S. and around the globe. Reliable estimates indicate that 75 percent of the agricultural workers in the United States are immigrants — most of which are not authorized to work. The main reason is that the current system does not allow for non-seasonal temporary labor.
This restriction also hampers processing and service industries, which often cannot find reliable workers because of the preference for — and accessibility of — post-secondary education.
But a robust economy is only one measure of success. Surveys of students and young professionals show that quality of life, including diverse cultural, food and entertainment options, are important to their decisions about where to live and raise a family.
Immigrants — including German, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Mexican and Laotian — are Iowa’s cultural heritage. Immigrants — including Burmese, Iraqi, Sudanese, Bosnian, Vietnamese, Indian, Pakistani, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, Liberian and many others — are our cultural future.
Recent announcements by both President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators, along with the bipartisan introduction of the Immigration Innovation (Isquared) Act, and a day of thoughtful hearings on immigration reform in the U.S. House of Representatives last month encourage the hope that real change could happen.
To secure a bright future for Iowa, we must make it happen. The right immigration reform will spur economic growth, create jobs and foster a cultural richness that has made America what it is today. Iowans particularly will benefit from these changes. Let’s seize the day.