Immigration laws should strengthen US, not its rivals

Yesterday marked the close of the five-day filing period when U.S. companies could apply for H-1B visas to bring high-skilled workers from around the world to work here next year.  The annual cap was exceeded in those few days, and a lottery will be held to determine which workers will be admitted.  This is one of many reasons the United States -- long seen as a welcoming environment for the best and brightest from all over the world to innovate, start a new business, and become the next American success story – is falling behind in the global race for talent.  A sobering new report released by the Business Roundtable shows how far America has fallen.

In a comparison of the employment-related immigration practices of nine other advanced economies -- Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom -- the study found that all but one country (Japan) had more competitive immigration policies than the United States.  Even countries where immigration remains a divisive political issue, such as France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, all scored higher than the United States.

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Among the six categories analyzed in the Business Roundtable report, America performed best in transferring skilled employees from a company’s foreign office into the same company’s U.S. office, and retaining international students after graduation. But even those scores were at or near the bottom when compared to the other nine countries.

Topping the list is Germany, a country that maintains no quotas for high-skilled workers, minimal regulations, and high approval rates for skilled foreign nationals and intra-company transferees. Germany also has strong policies for retaining international students and sponsoring high-skilled workers for permanent residence.

Furthermore, because Germany is a member of the European Union, its labor market for entrepreneurs and workers is open to the 500 million citizens of EU nations. That is also the case for France, the United Kingdom, and more than 20 other countries in the EU, as well as Switzerland.

How did the U.S. fall so far behind?  One big reason is we operate under a severely outdated immigration system – one that has not been reformed in nearly 25 years, before the business and job creating revolutions in information technology in the 1990s, and more recently, in energy. 

Imagine for a moment if our nation’s most innovative industries decided to stop research and development in 1990.  It wouldn’t take long for our foreign competition to pass us by. That’s what’s happening with immigration policy.  Our obsolete skilled immigration system stifles economic opportunity, and impedes strong job growth for Americans. Meanwhile, our laws also work to give an unfair and unnecessary advantage to countries that are America’s economic rivals, many of whom are far more welcoming to talented foreign workers.

Every year, the United States grants 85,000 temporary high-skilled visas (H-1Bs) to American businesses in sectors ranging from manufacturing to software development. And, only seven percent of green cards – visas for permanent residence – are granted for employment purposes.  These limits were established when the U.S. economy was significantly smaller than it is today, and thus, are far too low, particularly when it comes to filling jobs that require a background in science, technology, engineering, and math -- the so-called STEM professions.

Between 2009 and 2011, for instance, there were an average of 1.91 STEM job openings for every unemployed STEM worker in the United States, according to research from the non-partisan education group Change the Equation.

This current and future talent shortage has been at the heart of a decade-long bipartisan effort to modernize our skilled immigration system. Most recently, Sens. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDon’t let Congress legislate science The Hill's 12:30 Report Clinton’s 9 most likely VP picks MORE (D-Minn.) introduced a bipartisan bill that would increase the limit on H-1B visas to as many as 195,000 a year and exempt STEM professionals from green card quotas.

Critics of such reforms have peddled the mistaken belief that skilled immigration reform poses a threat to U.S. workers. The real threat to American workers is to do nothing, while more and more countries pass the U.S. in the pursuit of global talent. The evidence is both compelling and overwhelming: By providing American businesses with access to the talent they need to succeed, skilled immigration helps boost our economy and create more jobs for Americans. According to a 2011 report from the American Enterprise Institute, every approved H-1B visa ultimately adds 1.83 new jobs for native-born workers. 

Outdated laws that limit our nation’s ability to recruit and retain talent hold back our economy, suppress job growth, and give an unnecessary advantage to countries that are America’s economic rivals. Every time the U.S. turns away a highly talented foreign worker, our nation loses ground in the global race for talent.

Ours is a nation of immigrants, and even our most recent history provides powerful and inspiring examples of foreign-born and American talent working together on innovations that have transformed our economy and enriched the world. However, if we continue to let our current employment-based immigration laws work to the benefit our foreign competitors, more and more of this rich history of innovation will be written outside the United States.

Brown is chairman and CEO of Motorola Solutions, and chair of the Business Roundtable Immigration Committee

 

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