Linda Chavez / Jun. 15, 2012

We Need More Highly Skilled Workers

Can the federal government adequately predict exactly how many mathematicians, engineers, biochemists, and inventors the United States will need twenty years in the future? I doubt many of us would answer yes. Yet, federal immigration policy does exactly that in allotting work visas for highly skilled employees. Most of the debate over immigration has centered on low-skilled workers, especially the large population of illegal immigrants who have entered the country over the last two decades. But our legal immigration system is dysfunctional as well. The system primarily focuses on re-uniting foreign-born relatives with family members who are already here, paying little attention to what's good for our economy and what will benefit Americans by creating more jobs and wealth for all of us.

Can the federal government adequately predict exactly how many mathematicians, engineers, biochemists, and inventors the United States will need twenty years in the future? I doubt many of us would answer yes. Yet, federal immigration policy does exactly that in allotting work visas for highly skilled employees.

Most of the debate over immigration has centered on low-skilled workers, especially the large population of illegal immigrants who have entered the country over the last two decades. But our legal immigration system is dysfunctional as well. The system primarily focuses on re-uniting foreign-born relatives with family members who are already here, paying little attention to what’s good for our economy and what will benefit Americans by creating more jobs and wealth for all of us.

Congress tried to fix the problem in 1990 when it established special visas for highly skilled workers and researchers, professors and others of outstanding abilities. But the law set the limit of visas available to 140,000 – which included those for family members of those admitted. Worse, it applied the same absolute quotas on populous countries like China and India as it did on tiny countries like Luxembourg.

Wait times to obtain employment visas for professionals from India and China can already be eight years or more. To be eligible for these visas, applicants must already have a job offer. How many employers are willing to extend an offer eight years down the road? Only government bureaucrats have the hubris to imagine they can predict future needs with such clarity.

And the problem is even worse for some categories of employment-based visas. Workers from India defined as professionals and skilled workers can face a 70-year wait! And Chinese workers in these categories face up to 20 years before obtaining a visa. The state department has already advised employers and applicants for visas that quotas for those with advanced degrees will run out in July.

The problem is especially acute for foreign students graduating from American universities with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), according to a new study by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP).

As the study points out, although some of these graduates can get extensions on their temporary visas to allow them to stay in the United States, many end up having to leave – taking their highly valuable skills earned at American universities with them.

Those who oppose increasing the number of visas available for the most highly-skilled immigrants argue that such workers take jobs that would otherwise go to Americans. But studies consistently find that foreign-born workers with advanced degrees from U.S. universities in the STEM fields actually create jobs for Americans.

A study of employment data by the American Enterprise Institute found, for example, “An additional 100 foreign-born workers in STEM fields with advanced degrees from U.S. universities is associated with an additional 262 jobs among U.S. natives. While the effect is biggest for U.S.-educated immigrants working in STEM, immigrants with advanced degrees in general raised employment among U.S. natives during 2000-2007.” The study also found that it didn’t matter which field or where immigrants earned their advance degrees, their presence increased employment for American native workers, with 44 new jobs created for every 100 highly trained immigrants employed.

Limiting access to those immigrants most likely to contribute to the U.S. economy is foolhardy. There is bipartisan support for trying to fix the problem, but the approaches vary widely, including some that would simply re-allocate existing visas available to other categories of permanent resident applicants.

The NFAP states the problem well: “Absent changes in the law by Congress, the long wait times for high skilled foreign nationals, including those educated in America, will continue. At a time when there is fierce competition around the world to hire highly skilled individuals, this threatens to deprive the country of talented individuals who will choose to develop innovations, make their careers and raise their families in other nations.”

But in an election year when sentiments on immigration run high, politicians may find it easier to do nothing.

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