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Originally published Sunday, December 27, 2009 at 12:07 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Skilled immigrants might be the economic stimulus we need

If our antiquated immigration laws didn't so often and needlessly exclude the queue of would-be legal immigrants standing in consulate lines in foreign lands, writes columnist Neal Peirce, many more would be arriving to stoke economic activity in America.

Syndicated columnist

Are skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants the economic stimulus that America needs? Could lowered barriers help regions like the country's Rust Belt prosper again?

This is the audacious case that Cleveland immigration attorney Richard T. Herman and his journalist co-author, Robert L. Smith, make in their new book — "Immigrant Inc."

The mere thought that immigrants are an American asset, not a liability, puts a whole new face on the Lou Dobbs-style attacks on America's 12 million undocumented immigrants that CNN so long tolerated and right-wing media still promote.

The rancor over illegal immigrants, Herman and Smith argue, obscures the fact that legal immigrants make up the bulk of America's foreign-born population. Rather than agonize over youths scaling Mexican border walls, they'd have us focus on the thousands of would-be immigrants standing in consulate lines around the world, and often forced to wait years, if not decades to enter the U.S. legally.

That queue of would-be legal migrants, they argue, encompasses "brilliant engineers, high-technology specialists, investors and merchants almost certain to become entrepreneurs." If our antiquated immigration laws didn't so often and needlessly exclude them, many more would be arriving to stoke economic activity "in whatever part of America they land."

The story is not new. Immigrants were founders of such corporations as Dow Chemical, DuPont, Pfizer, Proctor & Gamble and Carnegie (later U.S.) Steel. And not just yesteryear: Immigrants founded Google, Yahoo, Intel, PayPal and YouTube. Since 1995, they've formed more than half of new Silicon Valley firms, driving one of the world's hottest economies.

The problem is we have a dinosaur of an immigration system — one that discriminates against talented scientists and engineers who want to come here. Only 9 percent of the coveted "green cards" — immigrant visas for permanent U.S. residency — go to people coming to practice a profession, pursue science or start a company.

It's as if we weren't in a fiercely competitive century in which the globe's most talented mathematicians, engineers and chemists, if excluded here, can as easily choose to form their world-class companies in Banglalore, Beijing, Tel Aviv, Seoul or Singapore.

And the gain is not just in super-scientists and high-flying corporate successes. Our cities benefit. Immigrant storefronts, University of Massachusetts researchers report, pack the power to spark commercial revivals on poor and lonely streets, their sales of fresh foods, flowers and phone cards generating foot traffic and enhancing safety.

There's a downside. At least for a time, immigrants may depress wages, especially in the lower-income range. But studies show high-immigrant cities enjoy more robust economies than those with few newcomers — that immigrants and the businesses they create provide rundown neighborhoods with a powerful jolt of new investment and spinoff job opportunities.

New York, Miami, Seattle and Boston all provide evidence that the formula works. But Herman argues such older and lagging cities as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit need a shot of the same adrenaline. He praises a turnaround in Philadelphia, which managed to gain 113,000 immigrants from 2000 to 2006 despite City Hall indifference.

By contrast, the new mayor, Michael Nutter, enthusiastically calls Philadelphia "an immigrant-friendly city." A Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, formed by a citizen activist in 2003, has helped 6,000 immigrants from 86 countries with "English for Entrepreneurs" classes, employment, business and accounting courses.

It's high time, Herman says, for the businesses and allied forces of the Midwest to press Congress to create a Great Lakes "High-Skill Immigration Zone" to let the Frost Belt cities more easily recruit skilled immigrants. The thicket of federal regulations restricting entry by skilled foreigners would be thinned for the region, with a goal of fresh startups and easier job recruitment to help its cities and metros start excelling in such emerging areas as biotechnology and clean and renewable energy technology.

Thirty chambers of commerce of the Great Lakes Region — Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Youngstown among them — did, at Herman's urging, last year endorse high-skill immigration zones as critical to their growth.

A new organization, Global Detroit, has been formed to research and then press for ways to make America's hardest-hit major metro region more attractive to a range of migrants from many countries.

Smarter immigration policies — national, regional, city — don't mean throwing the doors wide open to any and all comers any time.

But it's also true: We've never more acutely needed a steady flow of the world's skilled and strivers — newest believers in the American Dream, a virtually guaranteed stimulus.

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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