Immigration policy: An annual April Fool’s joke on U.S. companies

April 1 marked the beginning of a race among U.S. companies for approval to hire bright foreign nationals under the H1-B visa program. Less than one week later, the government announced that it had received more than enough applications to meet the entire years’ allotment.  This marks the twelfth straight year that the number of petitions filed has exceeded the cap, and the second straight year in which the cap was reached within a week. This shortage highlights a critical disconnect between the current economic needs of the United States and its decades-old immigration law. 

A technology-driven economy requires a labor force with a strong complement of highly skilled workers trained in the “STEM” fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Whether it’s the rapidly evolving role of mobile technology in our lives, protecting our economy from cyber security threats, promoting our energy independence through our burgeoning shale gas exploration, or enhancing our health via the fields of medicine and biology, the demand for employees with STEM backgrounds is strong and growing.

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Preparing our students here at home to fill these roles in sufficient numbers should be a top priority and will require a substantial and sustained national investment in STEM education. This commitment must extend not only to our nation’s universities but also to our secondary, elementary and even pre-schools so that U.S. students at an early age are exposed to computer science and other technical disciplines.

While improvements in our STEM education are critical, reforming our nation’s broken immigration system is also necessary to meet the pressing demand for STEM workers that exists in today’s marketplace.  It boils down to basic math: over the past ten years, STEM jobs have grown at three times the rate of non-STEM occupations, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce study. The study also projected that STEM occupations will expand by 17 percent from 2008 to 2018 compared to growth of less than 10 percent for non-STEM occupations. 

We cannot ignore these trends.  Immigration reform offers a simple, straightforward means to help satisfy the immediate demand for STEM workers and spur economic growth.  Research shows that each H-1B hire is associated with the creation of four more U.S. jobs.  Unfortunately, our outdated and inefficient immigration system blocks many companies from hiring qualified STEM workers.  As a result, the U.S. workers miss out on about 500,000 jobs each year. 

The U.S. immigration system does a poor job of ensuring that our nation’s employers, both large and small, have access to workers with the necessary skills in the STEM fields. Over the past decade, employer demand has routinely exceeded supply in the H-1B visa program, which is limited to just 65,000 temporary work visas per year for highly skilled individuals in specialty occupations.

America has a wonderful higher education system – the best in the world. So it’s not surprising that thousands of foreign students come to our shores each year to enroll in these institutions. Many seek master’s degrees and doctorates in science, engineering and mathematics – the very disciplines that support a high-tech, innovation-oriented economy.

Upon graduation, large numbers of these students are forced to seek employment outside the United States, often with our global competitors, because the U.S. immigration system prevents them from staying to pursue careers, pay taxes, create American jobs and contribute to our economy.  This policy is irrational and self-defeating.  Those who do find employment may wait a decade to obtain permanent residence.  Perhaps even worse, no visa category exists for venture-backed innovators and entrepreneurs with ideas that can be the foundation for the next generation of companies and jobs.

Immigration reform legislation introduced in both the House and the Senate would address these issues. Various bipartisan bills would increase the annual caps on H-1B and “advanced degree” visas, while building in safeguards to ensure these visa programs are not abused.  Other proposals to expand green card availability for STEM workers and immigrant entrepreneurs are also under consideration.  Taking these steps is essential to keeping our economy on the high-tech fast track.   

As an immigrant who first came to America as a high school student, I am grateful for the many opportunities this country has offered me.  Economic progress overseas has created far more options in their home countries for highly trained young entrepreneurs and scientists than was possible when I was growing up.  America needs to work hard to entice innovators to join us, rather than erect hurdles that make them feel unwelcome.  To help secure a bright economic future for America, President Obama and Congress must bridge their differences and enact legislation that will bring more high tech workers to our shores.      

Chen is executive chair and CEO of Blackberry and a member of BPC’s Immigration Task Force. Previously, he served as chairman, president and CEO of Sybase and as a member of the President’s Export Council.

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