U.S. Immigration changes selection process for H-1B visas

March 24, 2008                                                                                            Win a green card Subscribe in a reader

April’s just around the corner, and that means it’s H-1B preparation time once again. H-1Bs, which are visas for skilled foreign workers, are capped at 65,000, with another 20,000 given to foreign alumni of U.S. postgraduate programs. Last year, the cap was reached within hours on the first day that the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services began accepting applications. Because a bachelor’s degree is required for these applications, most foreign graduates from the class of 2007 were among the tens of thousands who were shut out of the process. If nothing changes, America will miss out on another crop of talent this year.

H-1B visas are reserved for the world’s best and brightest, and barring their entry is economic self-sabotage. The cap keeps out doctors, engineers and other specialists — people who save lives and often create jobs for others in America. One need only look at the national origins of founders of companies such as Google and Sun Microsystems to realize that foreign talent has helped keep the U.S. economy on the cutting edge. These are talents the United States has been struggling to grow at home, given that more than a third of all science and engineering doctorates awarded in the United States go to foreign students (for whom the number of visas is not capped), according to the National Science Foundation.

The H-1B visa cap was set well before the tech boom, so it does not reflect current needs. It was raised temporarily in 1999, but that increase was allowed to lapse a few years later. Since last year’s debacle, there have been congressional attempts to increase the cap, but these have been held up by the political sensitivities surrounding immigration reform, and in particular reforms aimed at illegal and unskilled workers. Because lawmakers lack the political will to keep the world’s talent in America, companies are following it overseas, setting up shop in Canada, India, Eastern Europe and other areas where the skills they need are plentiful. As a result, investment and jobs are being shipped abroad. As Microsoft founder Bill Gates testified this month, the jobs created by the A-earning foreign students who did not remain in the United States will now go to the “B and C students” surrounding them at home in India rather than to their American counterparts.

One solution that might be less politically inflammatory would be to recapture H-1B visas that Congress has already approved but that went unused during the post-Sept. 11, 2001, economic downturn. About 300,000 surplus visas could be doled out over the next several years to provide a short-term fix to the current shortage and could perhaps include an additional fee — which employers would pay — to create more revenue. A long-term solution is still necessary. Allowing the cap to stay so low effectively exiles not only the world’s best and brightest but also the U.S. companies that employ them.

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