Skilled immigrants an asset to the US

Xenophobes are threatening to undermine the positive effects of a bipartisan, common-sense measure that would help keep the best and brightest individuals here in the U.S. Today’s subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security hearing on “Enhancing American Competitiveness through Skilled Immigration” is an important opportunity to correct the record and show real progress in enhancing America’s competitiveness through skilled immigration.

Up for debate is the Immigration Innovation Act, otherwise known as the “I-Squared Act,” which would increase the number of visas for skilled workers by adjusting the H-1B cap. Immigrants are responsible for establishing one-quarter of technology start-up companies and jobs in the U.S., so it is imperative that we encourage them to stay here instead of pushing them to the back of the line and incentivizing them to innovate and create jobs abroad. The act also adds an H-1B visa fee that will be used to increase education funding for Americans who are interested in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, which will increase U.S. competitiveness. 

Bipartisan visa reform legislation, such as I-Squared and Startup 3.0, is a positive step toward sustaining the impact that immigrant entrepreneurs and engineers have on our economy today while feeding the pipeline for future high-skilled American workers.

Opponents of increasing H-1B caps aren’t seeing the measure in the same positive light. Groups like the union-funded Economic Policy Institute claim that there is a surplus of people holding STEM graduate degrees already, and that extending visas for more individuals to come to the U.S. would prevent American workers from getting more jobs at home. Opponents’ isolationism and protectionism are not only shortsighted — they’re unfounded.

The unemployment rate for highly educated, highly skilled STEM workers is between 3 and 4 percent, according to Compete America. These numbers are well below the national unemployment rate of 7.9 percent. More, they are even below the normal rate of a healthy economy, which is roughly 5 percent. The numbers strongly suggest there is a shortage, not a surplus, of qualified STEM workers. And the shortage will only get worse.

The problem has been looming for years, but detractors say we shouldn’t address it because some companies use H-1B visas for workers who eventually work in other countries. The fact that some H-1B visa holders move back to their home countries doesn’t change the dangerous reality that we don’t have enough people in the U.S. to fill STEM jobs — and we regularly kick out of our country qualified individuals who have STEM degrees from U.S. universities, simply because they are foreign-born.

Recent projections highlight the need to address skilled immigration as soon as possible. There will be more than 861,000 new jobs in STEM fields by 2018, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce (ICW). After analyzing the number of master’s degrees and doctorates to evaluate productivity, the institute found that the U.S. would fall short of filling those jobs by 313,661. This doesn’t take into account jobs that will open up due to retirements. We must increase the pool of high-skilled workers to sustain growth.

As Compete America’s Scott Corley said: “U.S. employers can’t fill all the high-skilled jobs with only domestic engineers and scientists. The limits on keeping the best and brightest working in this country only harm Americans by removing job creators when our economy is struggling.”

At a time when our debt clock is ratcheting upward and our government spending is out of control, it is clear that America should seek compromise to improve our economy. Politicians usually argue over whether to tax more or spend less to create growth, but one of the common-sense ways to do it is through innovation. 

The Immigration Innovation Act is a perfect example of how politicians and business leaders can rally around an effort that will create growth. By focusing on attracting the best and brightest to innovate here, we not only make America more competitive globally, but we also create jobs, increase business productivity and ensure that we create a stable economic landscape for our nation’s future.

Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association. The views expressed here are his own.