Commentary: Why a ‘heartland visa’ for skilled workers could be the answer to America’s immigration debate

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When we wrote The Immigrant Exodus 11 years ago, the imperative to keep the U.S. globally competitive was less clear. China had not yet emerged as a hostile competitor. Artificial intelligence had not accelerated to become a paradigm shift that kills jobs and upends industries. The long-term innovation price of hollowing out the U.S. industrial base was poorly understood by techies and economists alike. But even then, we knew that turning away the best and brightest immigrants would dim the economic and technological future of America. It was painfully obvious.

Today, the situation has barely improved. Some limitations on permanent and long-term visas for skilled immigrants in science and technology have eased—but only a bit. The political realities that have held back skilled immigration remain unchanged. The primary local beneficiaries of eased skilled immigration in technology are the West Coast and East Coast cities that are deep blue and companies and industries that are already perceived as wealthy. Immigration reform by executive order has targeted artificial intelligence, which primarily benefits those regions, too. Even with this restrictive reality, the U.S. is more and more reliant on foreign-born workers for STEM jobs.

The spurious argument that bringing in more skilled immigrants reduces the wages of existing skilled workers is trotted out repeatedly. There are also other sorts of unhealthy roadblocks, such as the congressionally imposed cap on federal support for graduate medical education through the Medicare program. This cap bottlenecks our ability to train doctors domestically after medical school and plays a major role in the massive physician shortage facing the country.

A novel immigration idea could cut through the political red tape and potentially open a path to greater economic prosperity and a heartland revival. Called the “heartland visa,” this relatively new proposal would make it far easier for skilled immigrants to come and work in this country and obtain permanent residency if they spend at least six years working in the so-called “heartland”—effectively, the Rust Belt and other parts of the United States that once enjoyed industrial prosperity but now lag behind the coasts.

Applicants who already have a job offer from a company in those regions would have an expedited path to obtaining both an initial work visa and a green card. This proposal echoes Canada’s wise immigration policy, which empowers regions of the country to sponsor visa applicants possessing skills specifically needed by that region’s employers.

This approach aligns multiple political stars to make passage far more likely. It focuses on net new job creation in regions where there are fewer skilled jobs. The heartland visa is also designed to revitalize areas that have not had the economic tailwinds of Big Tech, where skilled immigration would likely have a larger multiplier effect. To make the effect even greater, give the highest priority to workers coming to staff startups—the type of company that adds the most jobs and drives the most economic growth.

It would also allow for better regional specialization—think electric vehicle factories in South Carolina next to battery production plants or new material science startups close to steel plants. Such a policy would magnify the ongoing revitalization of many beautiful heartland cities and towns that retain the bones of classic homes and buildings and remain far less expensive than their coastal counterparts. If successful, the heartland visa would drive economic development, technology innovation, and national resilience all in one fell swoop.

The U.S. remains the world’s most attractive destination for skilled immigrants. Its economy continues to outperform the rest of the world. While China has made great competitive inroads against us, the U.S.’s open culture and embrace of entrepreneurship still make us the greatest melting pot ever created. These talents have driven our economy and will continue to drive it to great heights—if we only let the best and brightest come to America.

Vivek Wadhwa is an academic, entrepreneur, and author. Alex Salkever is a Silicon Valley technology executive who has advised dozens of technology companies on strategy and go-to-market.

(This article first appeared in Fortune June 13, 2024. Used here with permission from Vivek Wadhwa)



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