Congress must reform high-skilled worker visa system


The renewed debate over immigration reform has led to some very strong opinions, but one particular issue that has been lost in the mix is the need for more high-skilled workers in the United States.

The visa system for high-skilled workers — known as H-1B visas or STEM visas — is in dire need of modernization. This system allows businesses to temorarily employ foreign workers who have college degrees in various fields, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The system, however, limits the number of workers who can obtain these visas to 65,000 per year, meaning that many high-skilled workers see employment in other countries instead of waiting to come to the United States.

Along with a number of his colleagues from both sides of the aisle, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) recently introduced legislation — the Immigration Innovation Act (also known as the I-Squared Act) — that would bring a much needed overhaul to the H-1B visa system and more economic benefit to the United States.

The Immigration Innovation Act would increase the annual cap on high-skilled workers who can obtain H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 and also provide a manner of flexibility that would allow the cap to be raised even higher to meet labor demand inside the United States. The legislation would also remove the cap for high-skilled workers with advanced degrees, which is currently limited to 20,000 per year.

A coalition of freedom-minded groups — including the American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute — have endorsed the plan.

In a letter to House Judiciary Committe Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), the heads of these groups explained that the Immigration Innovation Act would help our economy stay competitive.

“As nations like China and India are growing at breakneck speed, it is imperative that the American economy be allowed to innovate and grow,” the coalition’s letter states. “High-skilled immigrants play an integral role in that growth; Immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a new business than native-born Americans, and newly formed businesses are responsible for the vast majority of new jobs created.”

They also explains the consequences of continued of not reforming H-1B visa, explaining that “[w]hen America turns away a potential investor, entrepreneur, or job creator, that person does not simply cease to exist.”

“She returns to her own country and starts a business that competes directly with American companies,” they explain. “And she hires citizens of her own country instead of Americans.”

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, has been a proponent of reforming the H-1B visa system. During his testimoney before the House Committee on Science Technology in 2008, Gates explained that the issue isn’t just about bring more high-skilled foreign wokers to the United States, but also the “four or five jobs we create around each of those engineers.” There is a much broader angle in terms of job creation, one from which Americans can benefit.

Regardless of how one may feel about the broader immigration reform debate, we need the world’s best and brightest helping business and techology firms develop their products to remain competitive in today’s economy. Doing nothing only puts our own prosperity at risk.

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