Skilled Worker Visas Should be Top Priority in Immigration Reform

April 5th, 2013

I’d need to write a book to describe all the ways the U.S. immigration system is broken, so for today’s post I’ll focus on just one.

Our laws, when it comes to admitting skilled workers in this country, are pathetic.  For several decades, we’ve seem content with admitting skilled workers for short stints under the H1B visa program or as permanent residents under entrepreneur and investor visas, the latter which are very difficult to obtain.

In the meantime, we’ve educated countless foreign students in technology and the sciences only to send them on their way upon graduation to compete with us from foreign shores.  Many of these bright young people would be happy to remain in the United States but currently, for most of them, this is nearly impossible.

The United States needs these skilled immigrant workers as we strive to compete in the global economy.  History demonstrates the value such immigrants bring.  For example, Andrew Carnegie and Alexander Graham Bell both emigrated to the U.S. from Scotland.  More recently, immigrants such as Sergey Brin (Google), Liz Claiborne, and Andrew Grove (Intel) have brought their talents to this country to launch successful businesses.

Under current law, the H1B visa program allows 65,000 visas to be issued for foreign workers whose specialized knowledge of particular jobs makes them uniquely qualified to perform those jobs.  An additional 20,000 visas are available for workers with advanced degrees.  These visas are initially good for three years with another three year extension available. After that, absent some extraordinarily good luck on the H1B visa holder’s part, these people go back home.  The fiscal year for counting these visa numbers begins on October 1st.  Today, as in April 5th, it is projected that this visa quota will be filled.  After that, a lottery system will go into effect for providing additional visas.

Entrepreneurs and investors currently can apply for legal permanent residency if they can demonstrate that they can make an investment of a minimum of $1,000,000 and employ ten full-time workers.  In certain cases, the minimum investment is $3,000,000.  Back when I practiced immigration law, I handled a few of these cases and they were never easy since the requirements were always interpreted quite strictly.

We all know the value of entrepreneurs to this country.  It’s their ingenuity and ambition that launches the engines of the economy.  While most lawmakers acknowledge the need to find ways to increase visas for skilled workers, many of them tie even the possibility of making such change on addressing the situation of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in this country.

Meanwhile, other countries like Canada are vigorously amending their immigration laws to encourage the entry of more skilled workers in their country.  They are competing with us, and unless we make dramatic changes soon, they’ll win.

Increasing the opportunity for immigration by skilled workers and entrepreneurs should be a pressing priority going forward.  It should not be tied to a comprehensive immigration bill.  It should happen no matter what else Congress and the president decides to do.

Our place in the global economy requires that we act now.