The Skilled Visa Solution: A Better Policy or a Bigger Boat?

Robert Hoffman Contributor
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College graduations are in full swing across our great nation.  As we have seen over the last decade, a significant number of U.S. degree-earners in science, technology, engineering, and math (the so-called “STEM” fields) are foreign born. Our policy leaders agree that keeping these talented students in the U.S. is essential to economic revitalization and job creation, but current policies and inaction on solutions are making other countries and even cruise ships better options as innovation hubs.

The issue is not a lack of jobs.  The unemployment rate for graduates with bachelor’s degrees or higher is hovering at 4 percent – almost half the national average – and the rate’s even lower for STEM graduates.  According to dice.com, there are roughly 85,000 high-paying tech jobs available in the U.S.  Microsoft alone has nearly 5,000 U.S. job openings.

For foreign-born STEM graduates hoping to pursue their professional dreams in the U.S., arcane visa policies are a huge obstacle. Thanks to rising demand for temporary H-1B skilled visas, this year’s annual H-1B allocation will likely be used up by summer’s end, if not sooner. Last year’s allocation was exhausted in late November. In 2008, H-1Bs were spoken for in hours, not months. That’s no surprise. The H-1B visa program operates almost the same as it did in 1990, when Mark Zuckerberg was in 1st grade. The current H-1B visa caps are beyond outdated – they’re keeping the U.S. from realizing its job creation potential.

If H-1B visas are challenging, obtaining a permanent resident visa – better known as a “green card” – is simply ridiculous. Green cards are essential if skilled professionals want to advance within the companies that sponsored their visas, or even start a U.S. business on their own. However, green card levels haven’t changed since 1990, and today, more than one million employer-sponsored professionals and their family members are on the waiting list. Many have been waiting for close to a decade.

For today’s college graduates who hail from China or India, earning a green card could be next to impossible. According to Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), it could take up to 20 years for today’s Chinese graduates to receive a green card.  For Indian graduates, the wait could be up to 70 years.

It’s no wonder that many skilled foreign professionals are giving up on the U.S., while other countries are rolling out the welcome mat. Chile’s initiative to create a global innovation hub, Start-Up Chile, brought in 87 start-ups from 30 countries during its first application phase in 2011. Phase two attracted more than 650 applications for 100 slots. Similar programs are being pursued in countries ranging from Canada to Singapore.

And if further proof is needed that U.S. immigration policies are literally pushing innovators and jobs offshore, check out Blueseed, a proposed community of one thousand mostly foreign born entrepreneurs and innovators who would live on an anchored cruise ship or floating barge in international waters, a short ferry ride from San Francisco. Blueseed’s motivation to pursue sea-novation is simple: “The world’s best entrepreneurs should be able to gather and collaborate in one place, and not be limited by antiquated work visa restrictions. “

Blueseed learned from Microsoft, which opened a software development center in 2007 in Vancouver, Canada, because, according to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, “we were having trouble getting visas for the best and the brightest to come to Seattle.” Mr. Ballmer also noted that U.S. immigration policy was (with all due respect to Mr. Disney) “a bit goofy, because for every person we hire to be an engineer, there’s probably another four or five Americans who we employ at Microsoft.”

Yes, a full-scale immigration overhaul is a heavy lift in an election year, but a few good ideas can restore the green card as a symbol of economic opportunity and job creation.

In December, the House of Representatives voted 389-15 in support of an idea championed by Representatives Jason Chaffetz, Lamar Smith, and Zoe Lofgren, as well as Senators Charles Schumer and Mike Lee, to repeal the discriminatory country limits on employer-sponsored green cards. The Senate could pass a similar bill soon. According to the NFAP’s Anderson, this one fix alone could reduce maximum green card wait times from 70 years to 12 years for U.S. college graduates from India.

Senators John Cornyn, Chris Coons, Jerry Moran, Mark Warner, Lamar Alexander, and Marco Rubio have offered bills to provide green cards to U.S. advanced degree STEM graduates and provide provisional green cards to job-creating entrepreneurs to launch start-ups in the U.S. These and other ideas would significantly reduce green card backlogs and revitalize the U.S. as a global innovation leader.

Congressional inaction on skilled immigration is not an option.

Inaction is having, and will continue to have, a detrimental impact on the current and future course of the U.S. economy.

Inaction will threaten U.S. higher education’s status as the world’s innovation launch pad.

Inaction will continue to fuel the innovation ambitions of India, China, and Chile, just to name a few.

And inaction will force the crew of the Blueseed to consider the same option presented to the crew of the Orca:  They may need a bigger boat.

Robert Hoffman is Senior Vice President of Government Relations at the Information TechnologyIndustry Council. Over a 25 year period, Robert has been a public policy advisor for four US Senators, the Governor of California, and two Fortune 500 enterprises.