High Drama Over Highly Skilled Workers

Governors and companies are pressuring Congress for immigration reform for the most talented as visa workers plan a march in Washington

After failing over the summer to pass legislation that would overhaul the rules for all kinds of immigrants, Congress is gearing up to take on the narrower task of reforming immigration laws for highly skilled workers. The effort is less politically charged than comprehensive reform since it sets aside the contentious issue of what to do with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants (BusinessWeek.com, 8/22/07) already in the U.S., and it appears likely that some legislation will be passed. But there is opposition, and the nature and degree of reform for the highly skilled remains unclear.

The latest push came Sept. 11, when 13 governors, including Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Christine Gregoire of Washington, sent a letter to leaders in Congress urging them to take action on the issue. They asked for more temporary visas and permanent green cards for skilled workers from abroad to staff the companies in their states. "If states like ours are to remain world leaders in innovation and intend to continue to see the job growth that is so vital to our economies, we must keep our employers in our states and ensure there is a skilled workforce in this country to fill their immediate needs," they wrote.

The governors are adding their voices to a call by technology companies for more talented workers from abroad. Oracle (ORCL), Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), Motorola (MOT), Intel (INTC), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) have joined together in a lobbying group called Compete America that is pushing for immigration reform for high-skilled workers. "We need an immigration policy that adapts to the changing economy—and one that not only helps fill jobs but one that welcomes innovators who create jobs," says Robert Hoffman, a spokesman for Oracle and co-chair of Compete America.

Top Execs Make the Case

The momentum has some leaders in Congress optimistic about the prospects for substantial change. "I am increasingly thinking there is a greater willingness to move forward on immigration reform," says Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House subcommittee on immigration whose district includes Silicon Valley.

Much is at stake for companies and workers on this front in the immigration battle. Tech players say their ability to compete in the world economy depends on their ability to recruit the best and brightest from anywhere. This year, Microsoft and Google (BusinessWeek, 6/7/07) both sent top executives to Washington to make their case, with no less than founder Bill Gates making the trip (BusinessWeek, 3/8/07). "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," Gates said in his testimony.

American tech workers and their advocates feel just as strongly that their futures are on the line. They contend that letting in more engineers and programmers from India or China drives down wages for U.S. workers, discourages kids from studying math and engineering, and ends up sending American jobs abroad.

Many of the proposed reforms would lead to "the disappearance of jobs and the depression of wages," said Julie Kirchner, director of government policy for the nonprofit group FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform), in congressional testimony.

Taking to the Streets

What would reform look like? It's impossible to know so early in the process. But the most likely outcome is an increase in temporary and permanent permits for highly skilled workers, along with a tightening of the criteria for doling out those permits. On Sept. 6, the House held a hearing on a bill called STRIVE (or, the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act of 2007), which includes a provision to hike the number of temporary visas--known as "H-1Bs (BusinessWeek.com, 7/19/07)--to 115,000 from 65,000 per year and add 150,000 more green cards to the current 140,000 yearly total. STRIVE is unlikely to pass since it's a politically explosive comprehensive bill, but its proposals for highly skilled workers may serve as a template for further work.

Tech companies are getting some grassroots support. Immigrant advocates are planning a march on Washington on Sept. 18 to call for more green cards for those already in the U.S. on temporary work visas. "We want to increase the profile of the issue which has been dodged for the last two years," says Aman Kapoor, founder of Immigration Voice, a visa workers' advocacy group. "We'll be physically present in Washington so the message is loud and clear: We have waited patiently, and it's time for a relief package for high-skilled immigrants."

Kapoor expects thousands of tech workers from across the country to converge in Washington next week, and members of his group are busy preparing dozens of new slogans and hundreds of placards for the event. Immigration Voice is hoping to build on the success of a related campaign in July (BusinessWeek, 7/17/07). Kapoor's group is calling for Congress to raise the annual cap on green cards for permanent residency from the current 140,000 to 300,000. Currently about 500,000 high-skilled immigrants on H-1B visas are waiting for green cards, a process that requires them to stay with the same employer, often in the same job, for as long as eight years.

Still in Concept Mode

The key question is whether Congress can pass any immigration legislation after the fiasco this summer over comprehensive reform (BusinessWeek, 7/8/07). Tech companies are cautiously optimistic about immigration reform for the most highly skilled. "Lawmakers are open to ideas, and there's a general recognition that something needs to be done," says Hoffman of Compete America. "But right now we are still very much in concept mode, and we're hoping for the opportunity to sit down and define something."

To succeed, immigration reform will have to strike just the right balance between tech companies and tech workers, between meaningful change and political feasibility. No one doubts the importance of the effort. "Personally, I think we need to do what we can to improve the legal system on the high-tech part," says Lofgren. "If we don't, we'll likely see companies forced to expand overseas instead of here."

Join a debate about H-1B visas.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.