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Penny Pritzker: My forebears came from czarist Russia to find success in United States, a prospect that should still be open to immigrants

Pritzker: Trump should not discourage the best and brightest from coming here to enrich America's economy, communities

Editor’s Note: Penny Pritzker served in President Barack Obama’s administration as the 38th United States Secretary of Commerce. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

CNN —  

More than 130 years ago, my great-great-grandparents left then-czarist Russia for the United States with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Escaping political oppression, they emigrated to Chicago with no knowledge of the English language, and at a time when immigrating “legally” meant little more than writing, by hand, the family’s name in a notebook at Ellis Island.

After settling in Chicago in 1881, my great-great-grandmother, Sophia, helped create a “Nickel Club” to help newly arrived immigrant families like hers who were trying to make it in America.

Sophia helped organize other women to pool together their pennies and nickels to buy food, clothes or whatever the newcomers needed. Some of those immigrants came to escape war or religious persecution; others hoped for economic opportunity; others still came in later decades to study at some of the best schools in the world.

Today, there are more than one million such international students studying in the United States. Their presence generates over 400,000 jobs and over $32 billion worth of domestic economic activity. Yet a recent study found, troublingly, that nearly one in three prospective international students surveyed said they had less interest in studying in the United States because of the current political climate.

The fact is the rhetoric and actions coming from President Donald Trump’s administration are making the best and brightest think twice before coming to the United States. This is tragic. Welcoming young foreign-born students to America has long been a key means of exposing them to our people and our values.

Paradoxically, creating an environment in the name of security that makes foreigners less welcome and less likely to visit will make our country less prosperous and, eventually, less secure. Our country faces real threats, but we must not let legitimate – but narrow – security concerns desecrate the historic values that have helped to define our nation for more than two centuries.

We can do this better. Our immigration system is broken and, at the same time, many American workers are feeling insecure about their economic future, which makes many of them understandably less hospitable than has been our tradition.

But the approach we are seeing from Washington these days resembles a sledgehammer aimed at the immigration issue, when what we need is a scalpel. The new administration seems to be conflating immigration, terrorism, and economic anxiety in a manner that is economically self-defeating and strategically counterproductive.

The administration has announced an executive order to reform the H1B visa system. That is not sufficient.

We need to fix the legal visa process more broadly, use technology to further secure our borders and establish a pathway for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows. We should make smart changes to the H1B visa process to ensure that we still welcome highly talented people who create jobs here in America, while simultaneously protecting against anyone trying to game the system on the margins to undercut our domestic workforce.

The fact is that we must continue to advance policies that will encourage immigrant entrepreneurs to continue contributing to the American economy. Almost half of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. Some of the country’s largest job creators – including Google, eBay, Intel and Yahoo – were founded by an immigrant. In my home state of Illinois, immigrants comprise 22% of the state’s entrepreneurs and employ more than 280,000 people. Immigrants are almost twice as likely as native born Americans to start their own businesses.

At the same time that we address our immigration system as a whole, our government should be investing in domestic job training programs that help hardworking Americans get the skills and credentials they need for a 21st century labor market. That means apprenticeships and career development initiatives in new, high-growth fields – but we must also reexamine our social safety net to ensure it works for the average American, given the flexible nature of so many jobs today.

Simply put, we are risking our economic future by failing to effectively train and recruit a high-skilled workforce. Today, there are more than 500,000 open computing jobs in the United States, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that by 2020 there will be 1.4 million more software development jobs than qualified applicants. America offers great opportunities, but our government must make sure our population is prepared for them.

My family has been blessed to live in a country that enabled our education – and our dreams. The same is true for countless other American families who have contributed to our economy and their communities.

Embracing the best and brightest from around the world and developing a comprehensive strategy to support and train our workers are two things that can be done in concert and will make America stronger. Closing our doors to the generation of students, inventors and investors who will shape our planet’s future would be a costly mistake.

With bipartisan political will, there is a path forward. The time to act is now.