The strangest thing happened at a hearing on immigration policy in the U.S. House of Representatives: Everyone – members of Congress and hearing witnesses, Republicans and Democrats – agreed that America’s immigration system is broken and is costing the country jobs and investments. (Watch the hearing archive.)
True, the focus of the hearing was on initiatives designed to reform our nation’s immigration system to boost America’s high-skilled workforce. That’s not the most controversial topic in the immigration debate. However, the quality of the conversation demonstrated a bipartisan willingness to consider a wide range of ideas on how to improve existing programs, like making the H-1B program more flexible to meet market demand, or creating a start-up visa to fuel new business and job creation. Both are key components of the ITI-backed Immigration Innovation (I-Squared) Act and Startup Act 3.0. Importantly, House members noted that, if these and other reforms aren’t taken, the U.S. risks losing the global competition for job creation.
Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.: “Skilled immigration reform should meet three goals. It should help to ensure our economic growth. It should ensure that we attract and keep the best and brightest from all around the world. And it should nurture the careers of American students and workers who choose to study and work in these essential fields.”
Immigration Subcommittee Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.: “We used to invite the brightest minds in the world to come and make this their home. Now, we turn them away. Worse yet, in this increasingly global economy, we tell them to go home and compete against us from overseas. The result has been a reverse brain drain, and it’s not good for our country.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.: “Today, talented individuals have many options as to where to relocate. America needs to regain its place as the #1 destination for the world’s best and brightest. That should be our goal.”
If there were one area of disagreement during the hearing, you heard it during the discussion of H-1B visas versus green cards. Basically, the question was raised about whether Congress should give priority to permanent resident visas, known as “green cards” over temporary H-1B visas. Rather than make this a divisive, “either-or” point, Chairman Goodlatte noted that the two programs should act in concert.
“We can look for ways to improve our temporary visa programs for skilled workers -- such as H-1B and L visas….[w]e can look for ways to offer green cards to aspiring entrepreneurs that don’t demand that they themselves be rich but that instead rely on the judgment of the venture capitalists who have funded them. We can look for ways to reduce the backlogs for second and third preference employment-based green cards. And we can seek to help the United States retain more of the foreign students who graduate from our universities.”
Rep. Lofgren, while noting that her preference is to strengthen green cards, noted that the Congress should not make a one-or-the-other choice. Both programs need to be modernized.
“What we have now is not competitive. Smart people can go anywhere in the world. We need to think about how to be competitive for the brightest people in the world. I think that the answer is green cards. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for a reformed H-1B program.”
ITI’s Garfield agreed with Mr. Goodlatte and Ms. Lofgren, and noted that the two programs can and do service different kinds of employees. Garfield noted that companies, tech and others, must have the flexibility to bring an expert into the U.S. to assist with a project on a temporary basis -- the exact function of the H-1B program.
“People -- human capital -- have become as portable as capital generally. People are moving all around the world. There are instances where design team leaders or engineers are hired in the U.S. with the understanding that as the product or service being developed moves through the global supply chain, that position will move with the product or service. The fundamental question we have to ask ourselves is whether we want the U.S. to be the platform for innovation for the rest of the world. And my strong view is that we, in fact, do."
(Read Dean’s prepared testimony.)
To ensure that the U.S. maintains its place on the global innovation leadership mantle, Garfield argued that the U.S. should adopt a system that adapts to market needs. It’s a point that was echoed by American Immigration Council Executive Director Ben Johnson.
“One lesson learned from the immigration reforms of 1986 and 1990 is that it is impossible to predict the business conditions or the demands of the U.S. labor market years in advance. We should not box ourselves in with arbitrary visa caps and per-country quotas.
“Reforms to high-skilled immigration and immigrant entrepreneur policies should address the needs of both workers and employers. Specifically, reforms should provide job portability, labor protections, and economic opportunities for workers and their families. Reforms should create a nimble and efficient system that responds in real-time to the needs of the market by giving employers the ability to fill positions quickly with workers who are protected from exploitation. Reforms should also provide ample opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs to spur innovation, job creation, and economic growth for local communities and for the nation as a whole.”
(Read Ben’s prepared testimony.)
Whatever their final solutions, Canaan Partners’ Deepak Kamra urged lawmakers not to delay.
“Even though the opportunity, infrastructure and market potential for starting a company in the United States remains far superior to that of any other foreign country, options for entrepreneurs in many other countries are improving as governments realize the power of the startup company on their local economies. Whereas 10 years ago, America was the only choice, today it is merely the preferred choice among many. Worse, for a growing group of immigrants who can`t obtain visas, America isn`t a choice at all.”
(Read Deepak’s prepared testimony.)
Yet, the question remains: Can this get done? Can U.S. policymakers find common ground and respond to the need for deep structural improvements to high-skilled immigration? Even with the challenges ahead, Rep. Lofgren thinks immigration reform will move from debate to decision.
“I have an increased sense of optimism that the Congress will come together and come up with sensible approaches to solve the whole challenge that we face in a way that works for America.”
At ITI, our members have their sleeves rolled up and are ready to help find those sensible approaches. There’s too much at stake for our economy if we fail.