U.S. Should Welcome Asian 'Anchor Babies'

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- So-called "birth tourism" is pouring plenty of fuel on the fiery immigration reform debate. Birth tourists, notably Chinese women, travel to and give birth in the U.S. so that their children will be U.S. citizens. After acquiring U.S. citizenship, the families return to their home countries to raise their "anchor babies." The plan is to send their U.S.-born children back to the U.S. when they are old enough to go to college and then make a living as Americans.

The backlash against this practice has become so intense that members of Congress are now calling for a change to the 14th Amendment. They want to change the law granting citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil.

Cooler heads need to prevail. The birth tourism industry seems partly a response to a change in U.S. policy that reduced the number of H-1B visas. These allow non-Americans in specialty occupations to work in the U.S. According to Manpower, the U.S. faces a severe shortage in occupations in engineering and technology. These Chinese "anchor babies" may offer a partial solution.

The birth tourism industry is tiny. In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 5,009 anchor babies were born. In 2008, the latest year for which data are available, the number was 7,462. This amounts to about 0.2% of births in the U.S.

In 2003, the number of H-1B work visas was reduced from 195,000 per year to 85,000, including 20,000 that are reserved for foreign graduates with a master's degree or a Ph.D.

In the 2011-to-2012 school year, there were about 197,000 foreign graduate students in the U.S. Of those, 37% were from China and most were seeking engineering, technology and other science-related degrees. Many of these graduates would like stay in the U.S. after graduation -- and many U.S. employers need their innovation-essential skills to fill jobs -- but just 20,000 can be granted work visas.

A shortage of workers in America with the skills to innovate is not something to view lightly. Twenty-five years ago, the consensus was that the U.S. would lose its status as the world's largest economy by 2007, falling to third place behind Japan and Germany. Japan would be a $4.5 trillion economy, Germany $4 trillion and the U.S. $3.5 trillion.

The economists were right about the size of Germany and Japan, but they missed the U.S. figure by $10 trillion. Later analysis indicated a failure to account for America as an innovation machine that gets quite a bit of its power from immigrants. Since 2000, 20% of American Nobel Prize winners in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called "STEM" fields) were immigrants.

Which of America's immigrants are the most innovative? Naturally, it's the STEM graduates. According to the Department of Education, Asian-Americans have the highest ratio of science and engineering graduates to population. It's nearly 3-to-1. Next closest are non-Hispanic white Americans, which have a ratio slightly higher than 1-to-1.