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posted: 4/23/2013 5:00 AM

Immigrants have helped nation thrive

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  • Raja Krishnamoorthi

    Raja Krishnamoorthi

By Raja Krishnamoorthi

Last week, the Senate released its comprehensive immigration reform bill, the first step toward bringing an archaic system into the 21st century. The public is also mobilizing for reform. On Friday, over 70 university campuses in 30 states hosted events about the need for sensible immigration reform. Spearheaded by the bipartisan Partnership for a New American Economy and the National Immigration Forum, this initiative involved students and faculty calling for smarter immigration reform through speak-outs, panel discussions and digital campaigns like the Partnership's March for Innovation.

Americans are rallying in support of immigration reform, in part, because they know it spurs innovation, entrepreneurship and economic growth. Seventy-six percent of patents from the top 10 patent-producing U.S. universities in 2011 had an immigrant inventor, and immigrants or their children founded 40 percent of America's Fortune 500 companies. Entrepreneurship and technological advancements are essential to a country's economic prosperity; according to Nobel-Prize winning economist Robert Solow, as much as half of a country's economic growth is attributable not to capital or labor, but to actual "technical change" or innovation.

My story is like that of many other immigrants. I was born in India, but my parents brought me here so that my opportunities would be better than theirs had been. They worked hard, but we struggled and lived in public housing and on food stamps when times got tough. Thanks to the generosity of this government, we were given our shot at the American dream, and we made the most of it.

Today, having earned an engineering degree, I am president of a high-tech incubator, Sivananthan Labs, which helps small, science-based companies succeed in Illinois. Founded by a visionary Sri Lankan immigrant, Dr. Siva Sivananthan, the Labs employ both native-born American and immigrant scientists, who are developing tomorrow's products in night-vision technology and solar cells, among others.

This Illinois story is not uncommon. In my role as vice chair of the Illinois Innovation Council under Gov. Pat Quinn, I have learned that numerous immigrants have created innovative companies here. I have also seen how immigration dramatically increases diversity, which is good for our economy. According to a 2009 study by a University of Illinois-Chicago researcher, companies with greater diversity in their workforce perform better than their peers in terms of revenues, profits, number of customers and market share. In fact, companies reporting the highest levels of racial diversity brought in nearly 15 times more sales revenue on average than those with the lowest levels of racial diversity.

Despite the evidence, myths abound. One is that immigrants steal jobs from the native-born. The reality, however, is that America has more than 3.8 million jobs that cannot be filled because the skills we have don't match the skills we need. Indeed, America is projected to face a 200,000-worker shortage in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields alone by 2020.

Another myth is that immigrants are a net drain on the American economy. But the reality is that immigrants are an engine of business and job growth. Immigrants founded 28 percent of all companies started in the U.S. in 2011, and immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business than the native born. Every international graduate with an advanced degree in a STEM field who stays after graduation creates an average of 2.6 American jobs. Seven of the 10 most valuable brands in the world, including Apple and Google, come from American companies founded by immigrants or their children. Immigration is a boon for American enterprise and innovation.

When my parents came to this country, the U.S. government took a chance on them. It's time we do the same for the families and the young people who will enrich our future. The immigration reform bill is one moment of political change that could help determine the trajectory of American innovation and prosperity.

• Raja Krishnamoorthi is the vice chairman of the Illinois Innovation Council and president of Bolingbrook-based Sivananthan Laboratories Inc.

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