High Skill, Low Priority

Via LaTimes.com (Editorial)
07/24/2006

Though it’s making fewer headlines, reform of high-skilled immigration is also urgently needed.

ONE OF THE UNITED STATES’ greatest economic assets is its ability to
attract and stimulate the world’s most innovative minds. High-skilled
immigrants have long played a key role in the country’s technological
prowess. But that magnetism is being threatened by inadequate visa
policies and this year’s volatile immigration debate.

The H-1B visa, good for six years, is the main legal means for
employers to bring skilled and specialized workers from abroad. College
grads make up 98% of H-1B recipients; 48% hold advanced degrees; and a
large portion work in technological R&D. They supplement a
native-born workforce that earns an inadequate number of science
degrees (one-third of all doctorates in science and engineering awarded
in the U.S. go to foreign-born students).

At
the height of the dot-com boom, Congress raised the cap for H-1Bs to
195,000 per year, though that quota was never reached. Since then, the
cap has fallen to 65,000. Next year’s limit was filled within the first
two months of eligibility, far earlier than ever before. Because the
2006 fiscal year begins in October, that leaves a gaping 16-month hole
during which no business can hire skilled foreigners.

This
policy discourages talented international students from staying in the
U.S. after graduation. Besides the 65,000 H-1Bs, those with recent
advanced degrees from U.S. institutions can compete for an additional
20,000 visas. That’s only a tiny percentage welcomed from one of the
most dynamic segments of society. And those who apply typically have to
leave the country one year after graduating, because that often comes
before the next H-1B batch is doled out.

H-1B opponents argue
that the visas are abused by the tech sector to suppress labor costs,
thereby displacing American jobs. But both Silicon Valley and the
Southern California aerospace industry complain of labor shortages,
while a national unemployment rate persistently under 5% suggests the
economy needs all the brains it can get. Today’s H-1B engineer is
tomorrow’s green-card-holding entrepreneur, creating jobs that might
otherwise be shipped overseas. And though enforcement is less than
perfect, H-1Bs do mandate that immigrants receive the same wage as
qualified Americans.

The Senate has been considering a bill,
both as part of comprehensive immigration reform and separately, that
would increase the H-1B quota to 115,000, extend the grace period at
the end of a student visa from one year to two and more than double the
annual quota for high-skilled green cards (permanent residency for
workers and their families) from 140,000 to 290,000. This would
drastically reduce the multiyear bottleneck facing many desirable
immigrants.

Congress should decouple this sensible bill from the
looming train wreck of immigration reform. The next generation of tech
innovation could depend on it.

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