In the National Interest: High-Skill Immigration Reform

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

Before the August congressional recess, key Senators anticipated that an immigration reform bill will be ready for the Senate to consider this fall. Given that congressional action on immigration could start soon, it is time again to highlight why the U.S. needs a smart immigration reform that considers high-skilled immigrants’ contributions to the economy.

High-skilled immigrants have been the lifeblood of entrepreneurial companies that have transformed entire industries and the ways we do things, creating tremendous wealth and valuable jobs during the process. Think, for example, of Vinod Khosla of India and Andreas von Bechtolsheim of Germany, the co-founders of Sun Microsystems; Google’s Russian-born co-founder, Sergey Brin; Jerry Yang, the Taiwanese-born co-founder of Yahoo; and Andrew S. Grove of Hungary, who helped found Intel. In fact, just over half the companies founded in Silicon Valley from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s were started by entrepreneurs born abroad, according to immigration scholar Vivek Wadhwa. Across the nation, over a quarter of technology companies had immigrant founders or co-founders. There are many other strong pieces of evidence in favor of more highly-educated immigrants.

Nevertheless, U.S. policies have been discouraging high-skilled immigrant’s contributions to the economy. In 1990, Congress, reflecting on the growing importance of technology, set aside 65,000 H-1B visas for skilled workers. The limit was raised twice since: to 115,000 in 1999 and to 195,000 in 2001. However, the number of H-1B visas later reverted to 65,000, with an additional 20,000 H1-B’s for people with graduate degrees from U.S. universities. The H-1B visa process has been plagued with backlogs resulting from this quota. The process for permanent visas has in turn become convoluted, costly and discouraging. As a result, high-skilled immigrants are looking for opportunities elsewhere in an increasingly competitive global labor market, taking their innovative ideas with them.

America’s heritage as a nation of immigrants has been the backbone and source for economic strength and U.S. science innovation. I hope policymakers will seriously consider eliminating annual caps on H1-B visas and creating clear incentives for high-skilled immigrants to stay here. U.S. immigration policies should strengthen America’s entrepreneurial environment by protecting knowledge workers – for the benefit of all.

Jonathan Ortmans is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation where he focuses on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues.

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