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Obama Helps Apple Pickers, Not Apple Coders

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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President Barack Obama's plan to reshape the U.S. immigration system is painfully lopsided. He has failed to address the humiliating and nonsensical rules that American companies -- the Googles, Microsofts and Facebooks, as well as many smaller companies -- must follow to recruit skilled workers from overseas.

Obama spoke at length last night about illegal immigrants who have for years hung on, tooth-and-nail, to their tenuous American lives and thus deserve a chance at legalization. But for the programmers, designers, electronics engineers, financiers, journalists, doctors, architects and other professionals who would like to work in the U.S. he had just this one sentence:

Second, I’ll make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders proposed.

On the surface, there is little the president, without Congress's help, can do for skilled migrants. The Immigration and Nationality Act allows only 65,000 people a year to receive H1B temporary skilled worker visas. (Exempt from this quota are 20,000 U.S. graduates of master's degree programs, as well as an unlimited number of potential government and nonprofit employees.) Just 140,000 skilled workers and their family members are eligible for employment-based green cards each year. Only Congress knows why these numbers made sense, and only Congress can decide that they no longer do.

Skilled Immigrants

While I have been unable to find a data-based explanation for the quotas' size, I know that their effect is to create chaos and unfairness. The opportunities are made available once a year, and within days, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is swamped with applications. It then holds a lottery to determine who gets a job and who doesn't. In 2013, the lottery was held on April 7, but employers didn't start receiving answers until about April 25. Visa petitions were approved months later. This Russian applicant checked his status daily until June 28, 81 days after the lottery. This year, waiting periods were just as long.

Highly skilled professionals, in other words, are reduced to the status of miserable petitioners, their careers to be determined by a government computer. Listen to the lucky winners and they'll tell you stories that now define their attitude toward the U.S.: Anton, a Ukrainian programmer, and his two friends applied together for jobs with a Chicago-based company and received similar offers. Two of them got lucky in the lottery, but the third one had to stay home. Where is the logic in that?

Congress doesn't care, though I doubt many lawmakers would themselves pass the stringent tests that were required of the 2,163 applicants who made it to Google last year. Nor do they seem to realize that every new tech job creates five more in the service economy.

Discussions of H1B visas and employment-based green cards tend to center on Silicon Valley because Mark Zuckerberg and other high-profile tech entrepreneurs have campaigned for the quotas to be relaxed. The issue is broader, however. Deloitte Consulting, the fourth biggest H1B sponsor last year, hired a lot of risk managers and auditors and paid them an average annual salary of $98,980. These foreigners are not engineers, but they are prime taxpayers and consumers. Hiring them has a multiplication effect, too.

There are a few things Obama could do to help without assistance from Congress. He could, for example, redistribute the quotas in favor of U.S. companies rather than big India-based tech outsourcers -- now the top three sponsors. (It's no wonder most successful applicants come from India.) The president could also make sure family members are not counted in the 140,000-quota for green cards. And better execution could reduce humiliating wait times.

More radically, Obama could extend the "invisibility cloak" that covers hiring at government institutions to some private employers.

Making it easier for foreign graduates of U.S. schools to stay in the U.S., as Obama says he will do, is something George W. Bush already did by executive order; engineering and math grads can work for up to 29 months on student visas before applying for the H1B. Obama should be willing to challenge Congress on skilled immigration by setting up explicit workarounds to render the quotas meaningless. 

Perhaps the story of the lottery-losing programmer isn't as poignant as that of Astrid Silva, who, according to Obama, came to America with just "a cross, her doll and the frilly dress she had on." The programmer would, however, be more immediately useful to the U.S. economy than Silva, "a college student working on her third degree." Not letting him in is at least as wrong as kicking out Silva would be. 

The European Union has no quotas in its Blue Card skilled-worker visa program. I know from personal experience that it's easy to move to Germany if you have a job offer: Waiting times are short, and the process is logical and friendly. This is one reason Berlin is a growing tech hub, and why others have sprung up in London, Dublin, Helsinki, even Paris. Companies there are staffed by talented people the U.S. doesn't welcome. Employers such as China's Alibaba must also be happy with the restrictive U.S. system: They need the workers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net