Immigration Reform: Fixing High-Skilled Immigration First

Many observers have long since written off the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform, despite the President’s hopeful pronouncements and sporadic attempts to revive the issue in Congress. That is not to say that immigration reform is a dead letter – just the comprehensive version. On Capitol Hill, there seems to be little enthusiasm for the kind of bruising legislative battle that comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) would require, if it were to be done right. Many in Congress have been content to let state legislatures improvise their own patchwork solution to our immigration problems, at least to the illegal immigration side of the equation. To the extent that illegal immigration has become a lightning rod for all kinds of public discontent, that is certainly understandable, though not really excusable; making difficult decisions is what they’re paid to do, right?

Against this backdrop, political pragmatists are beginning to talk about piecemeal solutions to our immigration problems; if illegal immigration is holding CIR hostage, the thinking goes, perhaps we should focus our energy on legal immigration, and make what progress we can. After all, half a loaf is better than none, and there’s still pressing need to reform our business immigration rules, to allow more of the world’s best and brightest to work in the United States – especially foreign students who come here by the thousands to study science, technology, engineering, and math – the STEM fields – only to be sent home once they finish their degrees.

As we noted recently in this space, House members on both sides of the aisle are working on proposals designed to keep more STEM grads here, and they are not waiting to hitch a ride on a CIR bill that may never come. (See Proposed Legislation Aims to Keep Foreign STEM Grads Here, MurthyBlog, 22.Jun.2011.) The Senate may be leaning in the same direction, judging from last week’s hearing on “The Economic Imperative for Enacting Immigration Reform,” held in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security.

In his remarks during the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-NY) said his committee is drafting legislation to expand the H1B visa system and provide green cards to foreign STEM graduates at American universities, though he noted his preference for a comprehensive reform bill. (See Senators Push for High-Skill Immigration Reform, by Grant Gross, PC World, 26.Jul.2011.)

The witness list included luminaries such as NASDAQ CEO, Robert Greifeld; Cornell University President, David Skorton; and Microsoft General Counsel, Brad Smith. According to Robert Greifeld of NASDAQ, reform of our immigration system for highly-skilled immigrants is not only important to individual businesses that rely on such workers, but to our economy as a whole:

“In countries like India and China they see graduates of America’s colleges and universities as ‘gold in the flesh.’ They mine graduates and qualified researchers for their expertise and abilities, paying top salaries and other benefits to get graduates to return home to help their economies grow. China, for instance, has launched the 1000 Talents Program, a plan that includes top salaries and research funding for Chinese researchers who will return to China. China has vowed to increase its talent pool of creative skilled workers from 114 million to 180 million by 2020. We are past due in our recognition that the competition for smart, capable math and science graduates is a global one. America has put itself at a disadvantage in this competition by not retaining the foreign skilled workers we help to educate and train and by not properly utilizing our own education system to produce enough scientists and other knowledge workers. I think failure to solve this issue will cost everyday Americans the potential for better jobs in the future.” (See Testimony of Bob Greifeld, CEO of NASDAQ, before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, 26.Jul.2011.)

Greifeld said the “default setting” for our immigration system should be, “You are welcome if you possess skills and knowledge that we need to solve problems and create solutions for the economy.”

Cornell University President, David Skorton, likewise called for a loosening of immigration restrictions for foreign students in the STEM fields, because national security concerns have made it harder for them to come to the U.S. to study, post-9/11, so that “the U.S. is not always the top choice of students from Asia who are applying to graduate school in science and engineering.” (See Testimony of David Skorton, President of Cornell University, before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, 26.Jul.2011.) Skorton noted that almost half of the graduate degrees awarded in STEM fields at U.S. universities were earned by foreign students. He warned that:

“If our immigration policy causes the number and quality of international students who matriculate in STEM disciplines at U.S. universities to decline significantly, it will reduce our capacity for research, innovation, and ultimately economic growth.”

Microsoft General Counsel, Brad Smith, echoed these concerns, calling for legislation to attract and retain more of the “best and brightest” of the world’s knowledge workers, here in the United States. (See Testimony of Microsoft General Counsel, Brad Smith, before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, 26.Jul.2011.) As Smith was quick to point out, this need not cost American jobs: “…if done right, attracting the talents of the best and brightest from other countries can help, rather than hurt, prospects for American workers, because in an innovation economy, jobs often beget jobs.” Reforming business and educational visas, he said, is not a substitute for generating more home-grown STEM talent – which we must do – but a necessary expedient given the short supply of such graduates, compared to market demand in U.S. high-tech industries.

Also testifying at the hearing was Dr. Puneet Arora of Immigration Voice, an advocacy organization known to many of our readers. Dr. Arora recounted his personal experience with the J-1 visa during his years as a medical resident and fellow, and called for reforms to the J-1, L-1, and H1B systems, to make the visa process more immigrant-friendly and less frustrating.

At this writing, the Senate has yet to introduce a bipartisan bill to reform student and work visas. It’s encouraging, though, that the Senate Judiciary Committee is discussing these issues, and that members from both sides of the aisle are saying – on the record – that we need to fix this part of the immigration system, now. We will keep our readers posted as things progress.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.