Immigration policy and enforcement practice in the US have been contentious lately, but there always was friction between longtime residents and newcomers as each seeks a space in which they can thrive.  Today’s disagreements are less about welcoming immigrants and more about the legality of the route they chose to arrive here.   

Most of us have immigrant roots just a few generations below the surface, and we respectfully recall the hard work and community building done by our family’s original immigrants and their successive generations.  They pursued an American dream and infused new strength into our nation through their labor, culture, character and new ideas.   

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Today, many of those benefits are available to our nation through H-1B visas, a nonimmigrant program.  H-1Bs strengthen our international competitiveness by putting more advanced skills into the US labor pool.  An employer who cannot find a qualified US candidate for a highly skilled occupation can file an H-1B petition to hire a foreign candidate who is fully qualified (typically master’s or doctoral degree) for the vacant position.  To get those highly desirable skills, the employer must pay petition fees and offer the candidate at least the prevailing wage.   The H-1B program is an effective way to recruit employees for tough-to-fill advanced skill jobs.  

The current cap on the number of H-1B visas is 65,000 plus another 20,000 for those with master’s degrees or better from US colleges.  That is minuscule compared with the 5.4 million current US job openings in August 2015.  Two million are in professional and business services, health care and social assistance occupations – fields which often need the advanced skills that come with master’s and doctoral degrees.  Among all jobs in the US, 2.2 million require a master’s degree and 3.4 million require a doctoral degree or professional certification.   

The H-1B workers do not crowd out American workers.  Even if a year’s worth of workers qualified to be H-1B visa holders were suddenly inserted into the job market and even if all had skills so superior that they won the jobs they apply for, they would take just 1.5 percent of the available job openings, leaving 98.5 percent of the jobs for other American jobseekers.  

In fields such as biological research, communications engineering and software engineering, the US has proven to be successful against international rivals.  To continue that track record and retain jobs at home, US firms must be able to recruit more of the top graduates from advanced programs in US colleges.  That includes foreign students with advanced skills available through the H-1B program.  

Last year’s Senate bill, called the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, would have deepened the economic benefits from the H-1B program and institute more safeguards for American and H-1B workers. Unfortunately, the bill stalled in the House after passage in the Senate. 

However, another bill, introduced early this year, provides similar and much needed reforms. That bill, sponsored by Sens. Hatch (R-Utah), Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Rubio (R-Fla.), Coons (D-Del.), Flake (R-Ariz.) and Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and called the Immigration Innovation (“I-Squared”) Act of 2015, would increase H-1B visas from 65,000 to between 115,000 and 195,000, depending on market conditions.  Compared with today’s program, the expanded cap on H-1B visas enables U.S. firms to expand in the US rather than having to build offshore offices near high-skilled foreign labor pools.  It is far better to keep jobs here, especially when the program’s safeguards protect American workers.  

While there are a number of safeguards in the new Senate bill, employers are required to pay a fee that will go toward funding the American Ingenuity Account.  That account will help foster science, technology, engineering and mathematics education for Americans here at home. In that way, placing H-1B workers will help alleviate the shortage of high-skilled workers in the U.S., both short term by increasing the number of Visas and longer term by developing those skills on our shores.   

The I-Squared Act improves the scale and safeguards in the current H-1B program. Those provisions will benefit the US economy without disadvantaging US workers.

Daley writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit education and research organization.  For more information about the Institute, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.