President Obama Calls for STEM Visa Reform

Those of us with more than a passing interest in immigration could not help but notice: in President Obama’s second inaugural address, as he laid out a sweeping vision for the next four years – and beyond – he specifically mentioned immigration reform as must-do agenda item, one that is not just a political but a moral imperative. With soaring rhetoric that invoked the major civil rights struggles of the last two centuries, President Obama proclaimed that:

“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began… Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity – until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.” [See Inaugural Address by President Barack Obama, 21.Jan.2013.]

With that, the President laid down a marker, indicating that immigration is not simply a plank in his political platform – not just another anodyne policy statement – but part and parcel of his mission, something he’ll go to the mat for. As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama vowed to pass comprehensive immigration reform within his first year in office – a campaign promise that for a variety of reasons has yet to be fulfilled. Now, as a second-term president with one eye on the history books, Mr. Obama surely intends to make good on that promise. This should come as no surprise.

What is most striking about the President’s remarks about the need for immigration reform is the fact that STEM visa reform gets equal billing with the immigration issue, writ large. One might speculate as to why, but it’s hard to miss the obvious reason: we need jobs if we are to continue the recovery, and we especially need the high-tech jobs that immigrant entrepreneurs have been generating here for the past three decades.

The global competition for talent is already fierce, and will only get more so in the coming years, a point underscored by a recent CNBC article:

“‘I’ve been blown away by how much the immigration policy has been kicking us in the teeth,’ said Alex Salazar, chief executive and co-founder of Stormpath, a Silicon Valley startup that’s been struggling to find candidates in engineering, computer science and software development. Most of his candidates are from outside the U.S., and half the recruitment conversations are about visas.” [See How Lack of Immigration Reform Harms Startups, U.S. Economy, by Heesun Wee, CNBC, 24.Jan.2013.]

At this point, most agree that STEM visa reform is an economic necessity. Perhaps the President’s point in raising the issue is to signal his Republican counterparts that he intends to give serious attention to the needs of the business community, and build outward from the common ground where consensus is emerging. In any case, it’s an easier starting point than dealing, first off, with the intractable issue of undocumented immigrants.

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