Commentary: Talk of Silicon’s Valley’s big comeback could turn out to be hype unless America reforms its shortsighted policies on immigration and education

By George Koo, New America Media

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Jan 25, 2006 – “Silicon Valley is back,” proclaimed the organizers of a State of the Valley conference that examined the economic health of the world-famous wellspring of technology. That’s good news. But the bad news is that our fear of immigrants could threaten the valley’s resurgence.

The conference, sponsored by the nonprofit Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, celebrated the reversal of a negative trend: Every year since the dot-com bust in 2000, the valley’s total employment had declined. Last year the Silicon Valley payroll, however, showed an increase of about 2,000 jobs, or some 0.2 percent of a work force of 1 million. From peak to trough, the valley actually had lost more than 200,000 jobs. The minuscule gain was seen as hopeful sign that the hemorrhage has stopped.

Nonetheless, industry leaders and pundits at the event were quick with self-congratulations and applauded Silicon Valley’s ability to reinvent itself and remain the world’s center for new technologies. First, it had broken through in innovation on integrated circuits, then in information technology, then the Internet and life sciences and now as the world leader in an idea economy.

Beneath the thin veneer of good news, however, there’s food for thought that can cause indigestion and keep one up at night — at least for those worried about the future of this country. It’s about our shortsighted policies on immigrants and education.

According to the survey released, Silicon Valley made up 1 percent of the nation’s population but filed 11 percent of the patents and soaked up over 25 percent of all the venture capital invested in the United States. By any measure, this was a confirmation of the innovative and unique character of the valley.

This uniqueness can be attributed to demographics that are different from anywhere else in the country. Here, whites are already a minority, at 40 percent of the population. Asians make up 33 percent and are the second-largest ethnic group.

The foreign-born make up 38 percent of the denizens of Silicon Valley and account for 53 percent of the engineers and scientists working there. One can only conclude that the Silicon Valley spirit of innovation and enterprise is inseparable from the presence of immigrants.

Without immigrants there would be no Silicon Valley. Yet since 9/11, our national policy has been to keep foreigners out. This policy is indiscriminate and affects our ability to attract the talent that the valley needs. Some would even argue that the anti-immigrant policy has been used to keep out foreign students coming from China and India.

This country’s past greatness, built on the backs of immigrants, is frequently forgotten. There’s even the thinking that raising the barrier for foreign entry would lower the bar of entry to the industry for native-born Americans. Unfortunately, technological excellence cannot be wrung from those with mediocre credentials.

At every unveiling of the past year’s scorecard for Silicon Valley, leaders complain about the inadequate quality of K-12 education in this country and publicly wonder where the next-wave-entry engineers will come from. Were it not for foreign students who came to study and decided to remain and work in the valley, there would have been no horses to drive innovation.

This country is not just leaving any child behind. A whole generation is being left behind. A recent international math test of 15-year-olds ranked the United States 29th out of 34 nations tested. This is just one of a stream of indications. We should be frightened out of our wits, but we’ve been hearing these kinds of results for much too long.

Out of the 300 semifinalists at the prestigious Intel Science Fair this year, a national competition for high school students, 67 have a Chinese surname. That’s roughly 10 times higher than pro-rata share based on the Chinese population in the United States.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, there were nine semifinalists, two with surnames from India and four from China or Taiwan. One can’t tell by their surnames if the other three came from immigrant families.

Instead of talking about white flight from Asian-dominated high schools in Cupertino, Calif., we should be worrying about how to motivate more kids of any ethnic group to take an interest in math and science.

We don’t teach our kids to be good in math and science. Yet we don’t want immigrants who are highly trained and motivated to be too formidable a competition for native-born American kids.

What does this say about the future of the United States? How long can we continue to ring the gong of good news in Silicon Valley?


George Koo is an international business consultant and commentator for Pacific News Service. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.