H-1B Visas: A Modest Proposal for Immigration Reform

(The eighth paragraph has been changed to clarify government job projections and the relationship to H-1B visas.)

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses …" A statement of current American sentiment? Not quite! While there has yet to be a move to strike this universally recognized phrase from the Statue of Liberty, the ideals behind these noble words would find little support today among the vast majority of Americans. Efforts by both Republicans and Democrats over the past decade to address the nation's broken immigration policy have stalled and immigration remains at the epicenter of the partisan divide.

A divisive topic in any economic environment, immigration reform appears to be almost impossible to discuss in a job market with unemployment hovering near 10 percent. Unfortunately, the visceral reactions preempt fulsome consideration of both the problems and the potential solutions. These reactions also obscure the long-term economic consequences of not opening our borders to the world's best and brightest.

Ironically, those who oppose immigration reform on economic grounds fail to recognize that when we limit the influx of professionals and other highly skilled workers into the U.S., we also limit growth and job creation. Many of the world's most promising students flock to America's renowned research universities for their education. Having attracted and educated these newly minted scientists, engineers, and physicians, what do we do? America tells them to leave!

As New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in December, "Our immigration policy is a form of national suicide. … We ship [these students] home where they can take what they learned here and use it to create companies and products that compete with ours." (The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg Businessweek parent Bloomberg LP.)

Shortsighted Approach

While suicide might be a bit of hyperbole, our approach to highly skilled immigrants is shortsighted, to say the very least.

Current U.S. immigration policy limits the number of highly skilled workers who are permitted to enter the country each year. Rather than encouraging these individuals to come to the U.S., or even allowing the number of visas to float to reflect the demand for their services from U.S.-based employers, current U.S. policy caps the number of H-1B visas at 85,000 annually. That number has not been raised in years, and the demand for highly skilled immigrants far outstrips their supply.

Many opponents of an increase in the cap or a revamping of the system express concerns about employers using these visas to bring in unskilled workers. But there is almost no evidence to support such concerns. Many of those who oppose immigration reform, even limited changes necessary to address the shortage of highly skilled workers, point to economic and security concerns that are almost wholly unrelated to the H-1B visa program. In effect, opponents are saying no to any change in immigration policy, no matter what the case that can be made to support it.

Government projections show openings for highly skilled workers increasing while the number of Americans receiving the necessary degrees is declining. As President Obama noted in his State of the Union address, as soon as foreign students in American universities "obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense." Tech giants such as Google (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL) will no doubt move significant development projects out of the U.S. to places where these skilled workers are available. Smaller high-tech businesses, historically the engine of U.S. growth and job creation, will simply never get off the ground. The consequences are clear: The next generation of innovative companies will not likely be founded here. Instead, due to U.S. policy, these companies will most probably be created in places such as India, China, and Singapore.

Sensible Solution

While the broader immigration reform issues may not be solved for years, there should be room on both ends of the political spectrum to agree to a sensible solution to the tech-worker problem. The U.S. should permit any engineer or doctorate recipient educated in the U.S. to remain here if he or she so chooses. In addition, we should grant a visa to any other highly skilled worker needed by a U.S. employer. We should also allow entrepreneurs with sufficient investment capital to immigrate here to start their businesses. Obviously, there would need to be the usual security checks and immigrants would be subject to expulsion if they commit a serious crime, but this wave of innovators would help drive the U.S. economy. It's a sensible approach, but sadly few in Congress appear to have the political will to move it forward.

How have we gone from a nation of immigrants, who welcomed the poorest to our shores and who applauded our tradition as the melting pot of the world, to a society that cannot recognize that its own economic future depends on allowing the world's most highly skilled to bring their energy and talent here? Something is clearly wrong when engineers and PhDs educated at top universities are forced to leave the country while U.S. businesses are desperate for their services.

We may no longer be willing to accept the world's huddled masses, but we must make a place for the world's top scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs if we want to remain the world's largest and most dynamic economy.

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