We can turbocharge our technology industry with immigration reform
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Today, “tech week” begins at the White House. The five-day confab will reportedly see the likes of technology experts and big-name CEOs like Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Oracle’s Safra Catz, and Apple’s Tim Cook.

They plan on covering a host of topics, including the elephant in the room: our fundamentally flawed immigration system. Left unaddressed, the issue poses a growing threat to several sectors including tech. For a course correction, it would behoove summit participants to consider a policy blueprint just put forth by the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board.

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As the report details, under the current immigration system the federal government chooses only a small share of immigrants based on their educational training and work experience. While more than one million immigrants received permanent resident status in 2015, the federal government admitted just 14 percent through employment-based visa programs.

 

Here in the United States, family reunification leads the way when it comes to criteria for admittance. It accounts for 65 percent of those admitted. And because the system puts too little of a premium on actual labor force needs, it should come as no surprise that many immigrant workers are underemployed. Combined, growing global competition and seismic U.S. demographic shifts underscore the need for top-tier foreign talent.

Between 2015 and 2030, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the number of native-born workers who will enter the labor force will barely exceed those who will retire. With net migration expected to account for almost all growth in the U.S. labor force, those immigrants must be carefully chosen to ensure that they will help employers fill key areas of need. And there will be great need, including in the technology industry.

A 2016 Conference Board analysis points to the STEM occupations as one of three fields that look certain to experience acute labor shortages over the next decade. Positions in short supply but in great demand include information security analysts and data scientists.

But despite the looming STEM shortages, our temporary employment-based admissions process under the H-1B visa category shows no signs of receiving a needed overhaul. The tech titans who plan on meeting with the administration should highlight that current policy dictates that all qualified applicants go into a lottery. That is regardless of whether they are trained in a high labor shortage risk occupation like data science, or one with lower future shortage risks.

Moreover, country caps limit permanent employment-based admissions to 50,000 per year per country, regardless of the available pool of highly qualified workers from any given country. That unnecessarily constrains the ability of firms to seek out the best and the brightest from China and India, since they routinely surpass these limits despite having a robust pool of tech talent.

Some other countries have jumped ahead of the U.S. in figuring out how to make their immigration policies best serve their economic needs. In Canada, more than half of their new immigrants between 2009 and 2013 were admitted as part of employment or economic-based programs. Another benefit, the country grants immigrants admission based on their own merits and skills even prior to having a job offer in hand.

This expands options for both employee and employer, which leads to better matching and better economic outcomes. Canada also hands some control over immigration policy to lower-level jurisdictions to better steer immigrants to the provinces and territories, where their skills and work experience are in greatest demand.

The United States has moved at a snail’s pace when it comes to following similar directions with immigration policy. As other countries adopt strategies superior to ours in attracting high-skilled foreign individuals to live and work in their countries, the U.S. risks losing its position of prominence at the top of the global economy.

Immigration reform has vexed Washington for three decades, and we recognize that fundamental reforms on the scale we envision won’t come overnight. Still, with today marking the start of tech week and some keystone industry figures at the table, we feel the time is ripe to change the discussion around immigration.

If they lend their expertise and leverage their bully pulpits, getting just a few reforms over the goal line will go a long way toward creating a more inclusive and dynamic economy. One that will benefit both native-born and foreign-born workers.

Diane Lim is principal economist at The Conference Board, a global business membership and research association working in the public interest.

Brian Schaitkin is senior economist at The Conference Board. Read the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board’s new immigration report here.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.