Commentary: High Tech Talent: Don't Bolt The Golden Door

Perhaps she's named Irina--a brilliant computer engineer from Kiev. She wants to come to the U.S. and bring her dreams of developing the next breakthrough in communications software. But if she doesn't make it in the next few weeks, she probably will be turned away.

That's the sad result of bad immigration policy. In 1991, Congress set quotas that allow only 65,000 high-tech workers to enter the country annually. The cap was part of a larger scheme to stem the flow of immigrants, legal and illegal. But with American companies scrambling to find programmers, engineers, and other highly skilled workers in a tight labor market, business fears the 1998 quota could be filled by May.

ON THE CHEAP. The high-tech industry is working with Senator Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) to raise the annual quota of these so-called H1-B visas to 90,000. But companies are getting a chilly response from the Clinton White House, which argues that U.S. employers are trying to get foreign workers on the cheap when they should be investing more money in educating and training the domestic workforce. "Companies shouldn't be able to say, `We'll use immigration law as our way out,"' says White House economic policy coordinator Gene B. Sperling.

The debate over wages and education misses the main point: The U.S. shouldn't bar entry to skilled and creative people at all. At the same time, there's no question that U.S. businesses must support and generate efforts to raise the quality of math and science schooling to ensure a sufficient domestic crop of programmers and engineers in the future.

But such educational reform will take years. In the meantime, skilled immigrants who want to work in the U.S. should be welcomed with open arms. Top-notch workers, no matter what their nationality, stimulate an economy, creating wealth and improving living standards overall.

Indeed, the high-tech revolution now helping to fuel U.S. economic expansion might not have been so powerful without the drive and creativity of gifted immigrants. Everyone knows about Andrew S. Grove, the Hungarian who co-founded chipmaking giant Intel Corp. But there are hundreds of others. Two of Sun Microsystems Inc.'s founding quartet were foreigners. At Cypress Semiconductor Corp., four of 10 vice-presidents are immigrants--from Britain, Germany, the Philippines, and Cuba. Says Cypress CEO T.J. Rodgers: "What would [the U.S.] look like if the computer chip had been created in Europe because of our lousy immigration policy?"

Many immigrants arrive as students. Alan Gatherer, branch manager of wireless communications at Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc., came from Scotland to study at Stanford University. Simon Fang, who now works on complex integrated circuits at TI, is originally from Taiwan. He also came to the U.S. to attend graduate school, and thanks to an H1-B visa, was able to stay.

WHIZ KIDS. The ivy path makes the current visa restrictions all the more perverse. Foreign students come to the U.S. to profit from the best graduate education in the world. Some take jobs here. But under H1-B visas, they must pack their bags six years later. Other countries get the benefit of these U.S.-trained engineers and scientists.

When these immigrants leave, the U.S. loses more than just their talents. An extraordinary number of their children achieve great success, too. Example: Of the 40 finalists in this year's prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search Award, 16 are either foreign-born or children of immigrants.

Critics say immigrants take jobs from native-born Americans. Maybe a few do. But artificial barriers won't protect U.S. jobs for long. If U.S.-based companies can't get the skilled workers they need at home, they will set up shop elsewhere--be it Dublin or Kiev. "We are disarming the economy of the United States if we don't allow skilled workers to come in," argues Dell Computer Corp. CEO Michael S. Dell.

That's why it is essential for the U.S. to nurture the best workforce in the world. It shouldn't matter whether these top-notch employees are born in New York or New Delhi. America, a nation of immigrants, should never turn its back on people who want to come here to work. They have too much to offer.

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