Where We Are On Skilled Immigration

Despite being championed by President Obama in this year’s State of the Union and quickly seconded by all candidates in the Republican primary debates — we wrote about it here — proposed reforms of the immigration process for skilled individuals have been stalled in the lawmaking process. Skilled immigration is touted as a no-brainer: it has — supposed — bipartisan support, and there is plenty of evidence to show that bringing in skilled workers from other countries actually creates American jobs by complementing our existing skill-sets and creating more opportunities in fields like computer science and high-tech engineering. Growing demand for visas only highlights the inefficiency of the current system, with H1B applications in the first week of the visa round more than double last year’s. Sadly, for all the rousing rhetoric of bringing in the best and brightest to keep this country great and at the front of the pack, there has been limited advancement on the legislative front.

There are a couple of different avenues being discussed right now with regard to high skilled immigration:

  1. Awarding a green card to advanced graduates in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) from US universities — straight from the mouths of Republican presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. STAPLE Act and Startup Act are the relevant bills for this one, and BRAIN Act follows the same principle but grants a five-year stay in the US to work in a STEM field instead of permanent residency.
  2. Creating a new visa for foreign-born entrepreneurs who want to start businesses in the U.S. Startup Visa would allow foreign-born entrepreneurs who receive funding for their businesses and employ non-family members to be granted an employment based visa.
  3. Eliminating the per-country cap on H1B visas; maintaining the same number of total visas but changing the distribution to solve the problem of excessively long wait times for high-skilled workers from countries like India and China. The Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act and AGREE Act deal with per-country caps.

So where are these bills? Let’s take a look at one of them — The Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act. Sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the bill received overwhelming bipartisan support and passed the House 389-15. Then Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) effectively killed the bill in the Senate, citing a greater need for protections for American workers. Grassley is already critical of H1B, saying in 2009; “Employers need to be held accountable so that foreign workers are not flooding the market, depressing wages, and taking jobs from qualified Americans.”

Grassley’s statement is representative of the commonly cited misconceptions about skilled immigration, so let’s examine them in more detail. First off, with regard to the Chaffetz bill, changing the country caps wouldn’t increase the numbers of H1B visas, it would simply change the distribution process. So, under Grassley’s logic, the new legislation wouldn’t harm Americans any more than they are now. Furthermore, when the current mode of visa distribution was conceived, it was likely optimizing for a diversity of immigrants rather than for a specific skill set need. Altering this model just changes the optimization for our current needs — more skilled high-tech workers from STEM fields.

Then there’s STEM visas, which, according to Grassley, carry with them the danger of flooding the employment market and depressing wages. Actually, it’s pretty unlikely that the amount of visas granted through a program like this would have a big impact on the employment market or wages. The unfortunate truth is, extremely few Americans choose to pursue an advanced degree in STEM, and even fewer — only 8% of all STEM Bachelor’s graduates 10 years after receiving their degree — use that degree for occupations like programming or computer science. Studies show that most Americans currently prefer to pursue other, more creative or prominent fields that use STEM competencies, like healthcare. This is where skilled immigration can be a complement to the existing workforce; filling the unmet demand for workers in the jobs for which most workers born here are not trained. In order to stay competitive globally, we need to remain at the forefront of technological innovation, and that means encouraging those who are educated in the U.S. to stay here after receiving their degrees.

Skilled immigration should be the beginning of a larger conversation about education. In the long term, an increased focus on entrepreneurship and STEM education at a younger age for all American students will help to ensure we remain at the forefront of innovation and growth. Investment in K-12 will iterate in massive gains to American society in a few generations, and will help us grow a high-tech workforce alongside our continued ability to draw and keep overseas talent. In the meantime, we can’t afford to fall behind.

Skilled, foreign-born workers were how this country was made great in the first place, and can continue to drive the engine of economic growth, all while creating American jobs. We need to pay attention to the legislation being proposed, and when we see a bill like the one proposed by Rep. Chaffetz, we need to bypass the hornet’s nest of misconceptions and competing political interests to get it passed.