Keeping America Disruptive: The High-Skilled Immigration Reform Debate

by Ali Sternburg on December 3, 2012

There is widespread bipartisan support for efforts to keep high-skilled immigrants who have been educated at United States, particularly in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), working in the United States.  This is a policy priority for much of Silicon Valley and the technology industry, CCIA included.  However, while there is consensus on the ends, the parties disagree on the means of doing so.  Democrats want more comprehensive immigration reform (dealing with both legal and illegal immigration), while Republicans advocate a piecemeal approach, and so the split on this issue is a matter of policy, in addition to politics.  As CCIA President and CEO Ed Black recently put it:  “There is danger that such bills would be taken back into the purgatory of being bargaining chips for comprehensive reform.”

There was major action on skilled immigration reform legislation last week.  H.R. 6429, the STEM Jobs Act, would increase the number of green cards for advanced STEM degree holders, something that CCIA has long advocated.  Unfortunately, the bill offsets the increase by eliminating the diversity visa lottery, preventing the kind of bipartisan support needed for further progress.  Last Wednesday, the Obama administration announced that it opposes H.R. 6429, the STEM Jobs Act of 2012.  Despite this, the Republican-led House voted the following day in favor of a rule that led them to approve the bill Friday.  However, The Hill noted that the bill “has little chance of movement in the Senate due to strong opposition from the White House.”

Most of the opposition to this particular STEM bill can be summed up in two quotes from Democratic Congressmen who were quoted in The Hill on Thursday.  Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) pointed out that the STEM bill would eliminate the diversity visa lottery, in order to give out the STEM visas, creating an unnecessary false choice:

Rather than create a STEM visa program … it asks the question of this body, would we rather have a diversity visa concept, or would we rather have a STEM visa concept?

Most of the opposition to this particular STEM bill can be summed up in two quotes from Democratic Congressmen who were quoted in The Hill on Thursday.  Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) pointed out that the STEM bill would eliminate the diversity visa lottery, in order to give out the STEM visas, creating an unnecessary false choice:

In other words, we want to pick immigrants we like, and then eliminate those we don’t like, as though some are better than others.

For reactions by Republicans see this story, and for more by Democrats see this story.

The White House statement similarly explained its support for STEM legislation, but not as a stand-alone bill:

As a part of immigration reform, the Administration strongly supports legislation to attract and retain foreign students who graduate with advanced STEM degrees, to establish a start-up visa for foreign-born entrepreneurs to start businesses and create jobs, and to reform the employment-based immigration system to better meet the needs of the U.S. economy.  However, the Administration does not support narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the President’s long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform.

High-skilled immigration reform may be too important to wait for comprehensive immigration reform, as Vivek Wadhwa argued in Forbes this morning:

Sadly, the President is repeating the mistake he made with Obamacare—going for all or nothing. As a result, if we get any immigration reform at all, it will be unpalatable to both sides. It will take months or years to negotiate and will be messy. And while the political battles rage, tens of thousands engineers, scientists, and researchers will return home and Silicon Valley will suffer.

Legislation to keep high-skilled immigrants in the United States will keep the United States competitive, as the U.S. faces a skills gap for many of the jobs in the high tech sector, which is a key, growing driver of our economy.  A 2009 report by Wadhwa found that:

According to the studies, in a quarter of the U.S. science and technology companies founded from 1995 to 2005, the chief executive or lead technologist was foreign-born. In 2005, these companies generated $52 billion in revenue and employed 450,000 workers. In some industries, the numbers were much higher; in Silicon Valley, the percentage of immigrant-founded startups had increased to 52 percent.

The numbers are certain to be higher now.  From large, established companies to small startups, it is in the interest of the United States to have these bright minds innovating in the United States, rather than abroad competing against us.

For a great background on high-skilled immigration reform and some other pieces of pending legislation, the Consumer Electronic Association (CEA)’s Innovation Movement has a section outlining the issues and bills, including those that would expand H-1B visas, and entrepreneurial visas, such as the Senate’s Startup Act 2.0..

Additionally, last week marked another initiative by the United States to encourage immigrants to be entrepreneurs in the United States.  Last Wednesday, the White House announced Entrepreneur Pathways, “an online resource center that gives immigrant entrepreneurs an intuitive way to navigate opportunities to start and grow a business in the United States.”

It is imperative that the U.S. does all that it can to continue to incentivize innovation in the United States, by people from all backgrounds.  The future of disruptive competition depends on it.

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