If you have ever completed a Captcha security verification test on a computer or are learning a foreign language on the Duolingo app (options include Spanish, Korean or High Valyrian from Game of Thrones), then you probably have an immigrant called Luis von Ahn to thank for the experience.
Born in Guatemala City, von Ahn moved to the US for university and has built his career in the country. As a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, he created the reCaptcha squiggly-letter fraud protection test bought by Google in 2009. He then founded Duolingo, which now employs 600 people and has a stock market value of $3.1bn.
On a recent trip to London, von Ahn made a powerful case for the economic benefits of skilled immigration, which he himself personifies. Amid increasing talk of competition with China, population 1.4bn, von Ahn says: “China probably has more people in the 90th percentile of intelligence than the entire population of the UK. I think the only way to compete with them is to be open to the best minds in the world.”
The political debate about immigration in both the US and the UK is dominated by those who rail against the inflows of illegal immigrants across the Rio Grande or the English Channel. Opinion polls show that many voters share those concerns. But what is all too often lost in that highly charged discussion are the real economic benefits that skilled immigrants bring to their host countries. Yet there is increasing public recognition and support for that argument, too.
In the UK, public attitudes towards immigration have been warming since the Brexit vote of 2016. An Ipsos poll published last month showed 46 per cent of respondents thought immigration had a positive impact on the country, against 29 per cent who said it had a negative one. That compares with 35 per cent positive and 41 per cent negative when the tracker survey was launched in 2015.
As has been well documented, skilled immigrants have had an enormous impact on the west coast tech industry in the US, particularly those from India and China. According to a July report from the non-profit National Foundation for American Policy, foreign-born entrepreneurs founded 55 per cent of US start-ups valued at more than $1bn. It is a similar, if smaller scale, story in the UK: 18 per cent of the fast-growing tech companies were created by a foreign-born founder, according to TechNation.
Immigrants have long been a powerful, risk-taking entrepreneurial force in the US, says AnnaLee Saxenian, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, who has written extensively about the culture of Silicon Valley. When they found it difficult to access the “old, white boys’” club on Sand Hill Road, which has historically controlled the west coast venture capital industry, they created their own professional networks.
“Migration is a risk-taking activity,” she says. “They are a select group that are gutsy, high skilled and often come to the US to go to graduate school. We get the elites.”
Sadly, the rhetoric on immigration has turned ugly in both countries and doors have been closing to skilled immigrants and foreign students. That has not passed unnoticed in Canada and France, which have both been stepping up efforts to woo would-be entrepreneurs who might have otherwise gone to the US or UK.
The British government has introduced a skilled visa regime, which tech companies applaud, but it has not changed perceptions that the country is unwelcoming. Lord Simon Wolfson, a Conservative peer who backed Brexit, has been urging the government to attract more foreign workers. The choice, he told the BBC, was between an open free-trading nation and a “fortress Britain” — which was not the post-Brexit country that he and many Brexit voters had wanted.
Opening up the US to more skilled immigration tops the wishlist of reforms advocated by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington-based policy institute. For all the talk of American exceptionalism, the US has become “very lazy” at renewing the lifeblood of that exceptionalism by attracting talented immigrants, says John Lettieri, EIG’s president. “If necessary, we can frame immigration as a ruthlessly self-interested policy. We can be acquisitional in terms of global talent,” he says.
However the debate is framed, there is a compelling argument in both the US and the UK to welcome more skilled foreign workers. Increasing numbers of voters appear willing to listen. Politicians need to make the case more boldly.