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Report: U.S. needs immigration boost of high-skilled workers

By Ben Smith, For CNN
Economists Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny wrote a book on immigration reform in 2010.
Economists Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny wrote a book on immigration reform in 2010.
  • A report says immigration reform should boost numbers of highly-skilled foreign workers in U.S.
  • Report: Without reform, the U.S. could lag behind in the "global race for talent"
  • Report: Educated immigrants contribute more to the economy than illegal immigrants drain

(CNN) -- Highly-skilled foreign-born workers contribute more to the economy than they take away and unless the American government enacts immigration reform, the U.S. "risks falling behing in the global race for talent," according to a report released Wednesday.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas on Wednesday released its 2010 annual report. Attached to the report was an essay authored by two economists who argue that that reform is needed to boost the legal immigration of highly-educated workers to the U.S.

"The disproportionate focus on illegal immigration is missing the picture that the legal system of immigration is broken as well," Federal Reserve senior economist Pia Orrenius told CNN. "The cost of ignoring problems with the legal immigration of high-skilled workers in some respects is higher than the costs of illegal immigration."

Orrenius and Agnes Scott College economics professor Madeline Zavodny co-authored the essay, "From Brawn to Brains."

The essay contains ideas included in a book the two economists co-authored for the American Enterprise Institute in 2010, Zavodny told CNN. The book is entitled "Beside the Golden Door -- U.S. Immigration Reform in a New Era of Globalization."

Pointing to economic and census data, the authors say that skilled immigrants boost economic productivity and entrepreneurship.

In highly technical fields, immigrants tend to complement U.S. born workers by moving into expanding fields "where native labor supply cannot keep up," the author's Federal Reserve essay states.

Immigrant entrepreneurs obtain patents at more than a two-to-one rate than native-born Americans, according to Orrenius and Zavodny, and tend to boost "patent activity" overall.

More highly educated immigrants also contribute more to government coffers than lower-educated workers drain from them, according to Orrenius and Zavodny.

The authors argue there is a line of approximately 1 million skilled-workers waiting on "employment-based" green cards from the U.S. government. That's because the number of permanent resident visas issued by the federal government hasn't changed since 1996.

"Untold numbers have given up on waiting or even applying," the essay states. "For those in the queue, their applications have been approved, but their green cards won't be available for years because of strict numerical limits on employment-based permanent visas."

Orrenius and Zavodny also point out that U.S. policy on granting green-card status to immigrants overwhelmingly favors relatives of U.S. citizens, other legal residents or refugees. Employment-based green cards for skilled workers and their families account for 15% of the total issued by the U.S. government every year, according to the authors.