Monday, February 08, 2016
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MIRA advocates for the rights and opportunities of immigrants and refugees. In partnership with its members, MIRA advances this mission through policy analysis and advocacy, institutional organizing, training and leadership development, and strategic communications.

STEMming the Tide

A TelescopeImmigrantslament of education reformers in recent years has been the declining share of U.S. college students entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) professions—and the loss of opportunity for both those students and the U.S. economy as a whole.

A  new report from the Information Technology Industry Council, the Partnership for a New American Economy, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce tells another, less familiar part of this story, though one well-known to those paying attention: the growing role of immigrant workers in these same STEM industries, where the foreign-born account for 26.1% of workers with PhDs and 17.7% of master’s degree holders.

One other fact the report emphasizes is the net benefit here for the nation’s economy and all of its workers. As it states, “foreign-born STEM workers currently in the workforce are complementing, not displacing their U.S. counterparts” in these high-demand occupations. Immigrant STEM workers are also associated with new job creation: for every foreign-born student who graduates from a U.S. university with an advanced degree, on average 2.62 jobs are created for American workers.

This story resonates strongly in a state like Massachusetts, where foreign-born residents—roughly 18% of the state’s workforce—made up more than half of medical scientists in the state in 2005, along with 28% of doctors and 40% of pharmacists (Borges-Mendez et al. 2009). Almost half (47.9%) of doctorates held by Massachusetts residents ages 25-39 belong to immigrants (Clayton-Mathews and Watanabe 2012). And between 1995-2005 some 29% of science and engineering firms in the state had at least one foreign-born founder (Wadhwa et al. 2007).

Immigrant STEM workers, in short, don’t “take American jobs”—they help build them. For the sake of the country’s economic recovery and long-term competitiveness, the new report argues, policymakers should advance bipartisan legislation that times to fix cumbersome and outdated visa regulations restricting the number of foreign-born STEM professionals allowed to work in the United States.

We endorse these calls, with one critical caveat: expansion of visas for skilled immigrants should not come at the expense of diversity visas or the traditional emphasis on family reunification, a feature of some of the proposed bills. This is not just a matter of equity: some of the same research cited above testifies to the economic contributions of immigrants at all levels of the U.S. workforce—not least in high-growth health care occupations. But that is the subject for another blog.


Borges-Mendez, R., Jennings, J., Friedman, D. H., Hutson, M., & Roberts, T. E. (2009). Immigrant Workers in the Massachusetts Health Care Industry: A report on status and future prospects. Malden, MA: The Immigrant Learning Center, Inc.

Clayton-Matthews, A. & Watanabe, P. (2012). Immigrants by the Numbers, Second Edition: Demographic Characteristics and Economic Footprint. Malden, MA: The Immigrant Learning Center, Inc.

Information Technology Industry Council (2012). The Role of Foreign Workers in the Innovation Economy. Washington, DC: Information Technology Industry Council.

Wadhwa, V., Saxenian, A., Rissing, B., & Gereffi, G. (2007). America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs. Durham, NC: Duke University Master of Engineering Management Program.

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