Gates to Senate: More Visas

Microsoft's chairman testified in Washington on the need to admit more skilled workers to boost U.S. competitiveness. Reform proposals are on the way

As the U.S. Congress prepares to introduce legislation for immigration reform, William Gates III, chairman of Microsoft (MSFT), traveled to the Senate to share his thoughts on maintaining the country's competitive edge while fixing a broken visa system.

The exchange got underway with plenty of mutual admiration. "It is an honor for me to appear before you today to share my thoughts on the future of American education, the development of our workforce, and other policies necessary to ensure America's continued competitiveness in the global economy," Gates said in his opening remarks before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee on Mar. 7.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) expressed his gratitude for Gates' visit. Several Senators applauded the work that Gates has done through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve U.S. schools. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he didn't have any questions for Gates. "I just want to personally express my regard for you," Hatch said.

But once the pleasantries were finished, Gates was sharply critical of the current U.S. policies on immigration. He said the existing programs for both temporary and permanent workers were a disservice to the country, U.S. companies, and the workers themselves. "Unfortunately, America's immigration policies are driving away the world's best and brightest precisely when we need them most," he said. "The terrible shortfall in our visa supply for the highly skilled stems not from security concerns, but from visa policies that have not been updated in over a decade and a half. We live in a different economy now. Simply put: It makes no sense to tell well-trained, highly skilled individuals—many of whom are educated at our top colleges and universities—that the United States does not welcome or value them. For too many foreign students and professionals, however, our immigration policies send precisely this message."

Visas Wanted

One problem that Gates homed in on is the shortage of temporary work visas for skilled workers. The number of such H-1B visas is capped at 65,000, down from 195,000 a few years ago. The limit has prevented many companies such as Microsoft from bringing to the U.S. workers that they want to hire. Compete America, a group of tech companies that includes Intel (INTC), Motorola (MOT), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), has also been pressing for an increase in the cap and President George W. Bush has said he supports such a move (see, 2/26/07, "Fresh Ideas for the Immigration Debate").

Gates told senators that the shortage of H-1Bs is hitting a critical point. In the last government fiscal year, the supply of such visas lasted less than eight weeks after the filing period opened. For fiscal 2008, Gates said, the allocation of H-1Bs is likely to run out in the very first month. "This year, for the first time in the history of the program, the supply will run out before the year's graduating students get their degrees," he said. "This means that U.S. employers will not be able to get H-1B visas for an entire crop of U.S. graduates. We are essentially asking top talent to leave the U.S."

There has been a push to change the criteria for the H-1B visas, in addition to increasing the number available. Some of the most active applicants for the visas are outsourcing companies, including Infosys Technologies (INFY), Wipro (WIT), and Accenture (ACN) (see, 2/8/07, "Work Visas May Work Against the U.S.").

The concern is that some companies may be using the H-1Bs to facilitate the outsourcing of jobs to other countries, rather than to bring in high-skilled workers who will improve their businesses in the U.S. "The H-1B program is full of problems," says Ron Hira, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and author of Outsourcing America. Companies such as Infosys defend their push for H-1B visas, saying their efforts help U.S. companies become more flexible, efficient, and competitive in a global economy.

Green Card Backlog

As Congress prepares to introduce legislation for immigration reform in the next few weeks, policy makers have signaled that they want to change the H-1B program at the same time as they boost the cap. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who is chairperson of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, has said that there are weaknesses in the program and she wants to address them.

Gates said that another problem in attracting skilled workers to the U.S. is the severe shortage of green cards, which confer the right to stay in the country permanently. "Today only 140,000 permanent, employment-based visas are available each year, which must cover both key employees and their family members," he said. "There is a massive backlog in many of the employment-based green card categories, and wait times routinely reach five years. Ironically, waiting periods are even longer for nationals of India and China—the very countries that are key recruiting grounds for the professionals desperately needed in many innovative fields."

The workers caught up in that backlog were grateful to have such a high-powered businessman speaking out for them. Aman Kapoor, a 35-year-old from New Delhi who is now working as a programmer at Florida State University, says he applied for a green card five years ago. The U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Service agreed that he qualifies for permanent status, but he estimates he'll have to wait another four years to get his green card, unless the laws are changed. "There just aren't enough green cards," Kapoor says.

Speedy Changes Needed

Part of the problem raised by long waiting periods is that it often forces employees to stay in the same job while the government works out the status change. "Same job, same salary, same benefits," says Kapoor. "The problem with this is that it really drives down morale." Kapoor has been frustrated enough with the process that he founded Immigration Voice, a nonprofit group that is pushing to alleviate the problems of high-skilled workers living legally in the U.S.

In his Senate testimony, Gates said the U.S. should encourage the best students from other countries to come to the U.S. for college and graduate work and then to stay after they have finished school. He also said Congress should speed up the process to move workers from temporary to permanent status. "These reforms do not pit U.S. workers against those foreign born," he said. "They do not seek to make or perpetuate distinctions among the best and brightest on the basis of national origin. They simply recognize the fact that America's need for highly skilled workers has never been greater, and that broad-based prosperity in America depends on having enough such workers to satisfy our demand."

The first proposal for immigration reform this year is expected to be introduced by Senators John McCain and Kennedy in the next week.

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