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A new America? Immigrants hold the key

Arthur J Pais in New York | January 28, 2009

Professor and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa agrees that the economy is the single greatest challenge awaiting the 44th President of the United States -- but he also believes that Barack Obama would do well to pay attention to the question of skilled immigrant workers.

"Research, including my own, has shown that skilled immigrants bring in dynamism, imagination and strong values to America," Wadhwa, a fellow with the Labour and Worklife Program at the Harvard Law School and executive in residence/adjunct professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, says. "They fuel the economy. Just look at the start ups in Silicon Valley, and the role played by immigrant workers not only from India but also from other countries.

"Under President (George W) Bush, skilled immigrants did not get due recognition," he continues. "I don't know what his own thoughts were, but he was not really opposing the anti-immigrant, anti-outsourcing backlash."

Obama is in a good position to carry out his agenda, including massive public works programs, not only because the economy has collapsed but also because of Bush's abysmal record, Wadhwa asserts. Whatever one may think of public works programs in the long run, right now they are desperately needed to fix the economy.

"I expect Obama to execute his plans with vigour and transparency," Wadhwa says. "Free enterprise is a great thing and Obama knows it. But surely we don't need the kind of free enterprise that existed for the last many years. The economy was for the rich and the privileged and there were no checks and balances."

He believes it is important for Obama to restore accountability to the process, and abolish wasteful expenditure. "The world expects much from him," Wadhwa says. "In recent months, I have been to Hong Kong, India, and Peru, and when I listen to people I get a feeling that American prestige is on the rise because of Obama's unparalleled success. An African American, with a Muslim name in the middle, rising to power on his own without having ties to the old establishment is an unparalleled phenomenon. In Cuzco, Peru, I talked to a taxi driver who speaks of Obama as if he is a member of his family."

Wadhwa believes that Obama has a full foreign policy plate: He needs to rein in an increasingly rampant Israel, end its conflict with Hamas in a meaningful way, and stop Pakistan from collapsing into anarchy.

While he focuses on such large issues, his advisers should be drawing up a compact plan to encourage H1-B workers to invest in the country in a way that they become part of the stimulus plan. There are thousands of H-1B workers who are interested in buying houses in America, but do not do so because they are uncertain of their future in the US, he points out.

"Imagine then that they are told that they can become permanent residents soon if they buy houses," he argues. "Within a few months 100,000 houses could be sold across the country. What a boost this will be for the economy."

On similar lines, H-1B visa holders should be given green cards quickly if they open up businesses and employ people, he suggests. "There will be waves of new jobs in America," Wadhwa says. "And this would boost the morale of the economy."

Overall, he says, there should be official recognition that America needs immigrants to grow its technology industry -- not transients, but permanent settlers, he adds. Pointing at the recent phenomenon of immigrants leaving the US to seek greener pastures in their homelands, Wadhwa says it is vital for Obama to reverse this brain drain.

"We're setting the stage for a massive reverse brain drain of Western-educated, brilliant talent back to India and China, which is really brain-dead policy," he argues. There should also be recognition of the fact that skilled immigrants are risk-takers and natural entrepreneurs, he says. "They can make this economy not only stronger but also more dynamic."

Simultaneously, he suggests, the Obama administration will need to set up good procedures to re-train workers who have lost their jobs, and make them fit for alternate employment. Existing programs to given new training are inadequate and not run well, he said. "I see there are better programMEs in India to train laid off workers for new jobs."


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