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The U.S. Economy Could Use Some Good News on Skilled Immigration

Our immigration system is hurting our nation’s economic recovery.  Yes, not exactly breaking news, but we got another reminder of this well-known reality yesterday when the U.S. government announced that all 85,000 new H-1B visas for Fiscal Year 2013, including 20,000 for U.S. advanced degree graduates, were used up as of Monday.  It took only ten weeks to hit the H-1B cap.  Compare that to last year, when it took eleven months to hit the H-1B cap. 

The H-1B visa is a catch-all skills visa for anyone with a college degree or its equivalent.  The current H-1B visa program is roughly the same as it was in 1990 – when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was in first grade and the U.S. economy was one third the size it is today.  While commonly known as a tech visa, everyone from gourmet chefs to fashion models can work in the U.S. on an H-1B visa.  Unfortunately, for established businesses like Apple, or emerging start-ups like Yelp, they will have to wait more than 15 months for any H-1B-eligible professional to start on the job in the U.S. 

If current trends are any indication, the demand for H-1B visas soon will reach the pre-recession level, when H-1B visas were used up in a matter of hours.  The job demand is clear – as of today, the website has more than 85,000 postings for U.S. tech jobs – and those are the ones publicly advertised.  Microsoft alone reports that they have more than 5,000 U.S. job openings.  The lack of H-1Bs will make it harder to fill those jobs and further fuel the U.S. economic recovery. 

Don’t think U.S. companies will just sit patiently and wait till next year.  They can’t afford to.  If companies can’t bring the talent to the jobs, then, often, the next best option is to take the jobs to the talent.  That’s good news for countries like Canada and Chile.  They are proving that, thanks to advances in telecommunications and information technologies like cloud computing, it is relatively easy to create tech parks for established companies, or innovation incubators and mini-Silicon Valleys where innovators and entrepreneurs test drive new ideas that can spawn the creation of new businesses or even new industries.   In these environments, the most precious resource is knowledge.

And while the U.S. government has handed us another sobering reminder of the challenges of recruiting talent, Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) has released a new study that further piles on the embarrassing evidence of our failed immigration policy.  The report, “Still Waiting:  Green Card Problems Persist for High Skilled Immigrants,” finds that the wait times for permanent resident visas (also known as “green cards”) continue to mount for skilled professionals, particularly those from India and China.  Last October, an NFAP study found that an Indian national today could have to wait up to 70 years – 70 years! – for a green card.   In its report released today, the NFAP finds that green card wait times for mostly advanced degree graduates are increasing, adding to a growing perception that the U.S. is no longer attractive or feasible as a career destination for foreign innovators and entrepreneurs.  After all, a green card is necessary if a skilled foreign professional wants to advance professionally in the U.S. within an established company, or if he or she seeks to start a new company in the U.S.  In this fast-paced economy, green card wait times of five years or more should be unacceptable.

Today’s NFAP study noted that Congress could reduce wait times for green cards in two ways.  First, eliminate the annual per-country green card limit for employment-sponsored immigrants.  Right now, the system allocates only seven percent of green cards to one nationality each year, and unfairly discriminates against countries that have invested in producing skilled talent.  Again, this is not breaking news to policymakers on Capitol Hill.  A bipartisan bill introduced by Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah (and strongly supported by ITI) to repeal the per-country limits on employer-sponsored green cards passed the House with 389 votes.  The Chaffetz bill is bogged down in the Senate, but negotiations involving Senators Charles Schumer and Chuck Grassley are close to a conclusion.

The second recommendation is to exempt U.S. advanced degree graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) from green card quotas.  There is bipartisan interest in a similar approach reflected in bills introduced in the House and Senate – the Startup Act 2.0 – that would provide green cards for advanced degree STEM graduates, and provisional green cards for foreign entrepreneurs who want to start a business in the U.S.  ITI supports initiatives like Startup Act 2.0.  After all, ITI’s member companies – household names like Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, and Google – were once startups, and many of them were founded or co-founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Yesterday’s H-1B announcement and today’s NFAP report are not breaking news, but, instead, are the latest indicators in a trend of bad news when it comes to the state of U.S. immigration policy.  It’s up to Congress to break the trend and provide some good news that immigration policy is helping, and not harming, the revival of the U.S. economy.


Robert Hoffman serves as Vice President of Government Affairs for the Information Technology Industry Council.


Public Policy Tags: Immigration