We need to make it easier for ambitious, highly skilled people to make their lives and livelihoods here in America.
Though I'm not an immigrant, I've lived certain aspects of the immigrant experience. I was born in New York City when my father was serving as Turkey's consul general. As he assumed other diplomatic posts, our family lived in Thailand, Poland, Iran, India and elsewhere. In 1978, I returned to New York with a British university degree and a birth certificate in my pocket. A newspaper help-wanted ad led me to a job riding red route trucks and delivering the beverages of The Coca-Cola Co. to retail outlets. I immediately fell in love with the company and my birthplace. I chose to make my life in this country. Being a U.S. citizen by birth, I was fortunate to have that choice.
Many others would like to have the same choice. But they can't come to America unless they are willing to wade through a daunting bureaucracy, deal with outdated regulations or, when all else fails, enter the shadowy world of undocumented status.
I was lucky
That's one reason I support immigration reform. As a first-generation American, I know firsthand the blessings of living in this country. As a business leader, I also know we need to make it easier for committed, highly skilled people to make their lives and livelihoods here. Immigration is an essential part of the growth calculus for this great country.
Nearly half of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants or their children. Last year, three-quarters of patents coming out of our 10 top research universities were granted to immigrants.
As Washington grapples with much-needed immigration reform, my hope is that our leaders focus on creating a modern system with rational laws and regulations, strong border controls, greater opportunities for skilled foreign-born professionals and a clear way forward for undocumented workers — a potential route to U.S. citizenship that bears all the rights, responsibilities and obligations of that coveted status.
A half-century ago, a young chemist came to this country from his native Cuba with little more than $40 and an American college degree. In time, Roberto Goizueta would become chairman of The Coca-Cola Co., creating thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars of shareholder value. Today, we should do everything we can to welcome and retain young people like Roberto.
As we do, we should remember that immigration is not just an American issue. On the contrary, it is a global issue. But the U.S. clearly has a leadership opportunity to promote immigration reform beyond our own borders. For the sake of our economy and the global economy, this leadership cannot come fast enough.
At Coca-Cola, for instance, we operate as a local business in 200-plus countries, hiring, manufacturing and distributing locally. And yet we struggle with the often byzantine processes involved in moving our leaders and their families across borders.
The cost to our business, our people and global business everywhere is immediate — and acute. For those countries erecting barriers, however, the cost is even greater as they fail to gain the talent and know-how of experienced workers.
Free ideas, free people
The problem, at its core, is protectionism. Though it might be appealing to think a nation can protect its citizens from competition, the healthiest and most dynamic national economies tend to be those that embrace free ideas, free trade and free people.
Just as international policymakers are moving toward cross-border bank regulations, intellectual property protections and reductions in trade barriers, they should also strive for multilateral solutions to reduce harmful, even immobilizing friction in the labor market.
Let me suggest three ways in which government, business and civil society can work together to address global immigration reform immediately. First, we should encourage the organizers of the G-20 summit to include this in their agenda in September. Second, we should ask the United Nations to include immigration reform as an amendment to the Millennium Development Goals. And third, we should call on the World Trade Organization to work with both to advance this issue during the next global trade talks.
With the right set of immigration and visa reforms, we can help usher in a new era of American opportunity and economic vitality, while giving the global economy a boost.
Muhtar Kent is chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company. This op-ed appeared in the March 1, 2013 edition of USA TODAY and is being republished with permission on Coca-Cola Journey.
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