Some aspects of the immigration debate are almost as complicated and sprawling as the larger issue itself: what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented workers already living in the U.S., for example.
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Other aspects don’t seem quite so difficult.
“The goals of U.S. immigration policy should be rebalanced to give priority to immigrants who have the education and talent to enhance America’s economic vitality, by stimulating innovation, job creation and global competitiveness,” wrote Darrell M. West in a 2011 policy briefing for the Brookings Institution.
West describes this category of immigrants as providing a “brain gain” for the U.S.
West offers a sweeping mandate but one efficiently addressed in a remarkably concise piece of legislation proposed last month by a bipartisan group of four U.S. Senators. The bill, called the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, would dramatically increase the number of non-U.S. citizens who could legally find work or obtain education in high-tech careers inside the U.S.
It’s practically impossible to find opposition to the goals set forth by the bill.
More Visas and Green Cards for High-Skilled Workers
Broadly, the bill would make it easier for highly skilled immigrants to obtain visas and green cards to stay and work in the U.S. at high-tech jobs. Fees generated by the increased number of work permits would be used to train Americans in the same high-tech jobs.
“If we don’t get this right we’re really at risk of sending these high-tech jobs overseas.”
“I think given all the parties involved it’s an excellent bill that takes some of the biggest problems and fixes them. It addresses some of the things that actually hurt our economy,” said Deborah Notkin, a lawyer and immigration expert with the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It’s a great starting piece that makes some wise choices so we don’t continue to lose our best and brightest to (other high-tech job markets).”
Specifically, the bill addresses three areas: H-1B visas, green cards and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) funding for U.S. students.
The bill would increase the limit on H-1B visas to 115,000 from 65,000 and place an eventual cap at 300,000 if necessary. The visas allow foreign workers employed in specialty fields to remain in the U.S. for a period of at least three years and up to six years. The bill would also make it easier for H-1B visa holders to switch jobs and move around the U.S.
The number of employment-based green cards allotted annually would be increased by adding applications not used in previous years and by exempting whole categories of applicants, such as holders of advanced degrees in the STEM fields. Also eliminated would be numerical caps based on country-of-origin.
Sponsors of the bill have predicted that higher fees and increased numbers of approvals for H-1B visas and green cards could generate $300 million a year, a portion of which would be set aside for STEM-related educational grants for U.S. students. Under the bill, the standard fee for an H-1B visa would rise to $2,500 for a company with more than 25 workers. A green card would cost $1,000 for each employee.
Notkin said raising the caps on the number of H-1B visas and green cards was long overdue. “Static caps never work,” she said. “Eventually they’ll come back to haunt you. The economy grows. You don’t know what life is going to look like 10 years from now or 20 years from now.”
But while the three primary components of the Immigration Innovation Act are widely viewed as common-sense legislation that would benefit everyone involved – U.S. employers, highly skilled foreign workers and the broader U.S. economy – the proposal is going nowhere unless lawmakers can agree on what to do with the 11 million undocumented workers already in the U.S.
“Republicans and Democrats understand how the business part of immigration is broken,” Notkin explained “But immigration is a very complicated issue and this legislation has to be tied to the 11 million. It can’t be done piecemeal.”
Broader immigration reform will apparently be a top priority of President Obama’s second term and Congress, undoubtedly realizing the huge role the immigrant vote played in Obama’s re-election, have signaled their willingness to negotiate.
A look at some statistics show why politicians may finally be ready for broad immigration reform: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2050 the Hispanic population in the U.S. will increase by 167%; the Asian population by 142%.
Obama’s second term was barely a week old when six Senators – three Democrats and three Republicans – proposed a bipartisan blueprint that would make it easier for the 11 million undocumented workers to become legal while at the same time tightening the U.S. border from illegal immigration.
In Sympathy With Broader Goals
The Immigration Innovation Act is a separate bill from that wider reform proposal but clearly in sympathy with the broader goal of clarifying the immigration issue to the benefit of U.S. businesses and the U.S. economy.
An array of tech companies and organizations were quick to jump out in support of the fine-tuned Immigration Innovation Act, which was sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Chris Coons (D-Del.).
Silicon Valley icon Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), for instance, issued a statement saying in part: “The ‘Immigration Innovation Act,’ or ‘I-Squared,’ is a significant step forward in ensuring that the U.S. economy has the workforce and intellectual capacity it needs to enhance innovation, spur job creation and improve our economy.”
The statement continued: “I-Squared is a common-sense solution that meets the needs of our high-tech economy without harming domestic employment. It also provides needed funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education programs targeted at helping American residents get the skills companies need to be more innovative and globally competitive.”
Other companies, tech groups and immigration activists issued similar platitudes.
David LeDuc, senior director of public policy at the Software and Information Industry Association (SIAA), a high-tech trade group, praised the bill for making the high-tech element of the immigration debate part of the discussion of broader reform.
“If we don’t get this right we’re really at risk of sending these high-tech jobs overseas,” he said.