Businesses Make a Push for High-Skilled Foreign Workers

In the immigration bill currently taking up the US Senate's attention, the fate of millions of low-skilled illegal immigrant workers dominates the discourse. The proposal would allow immigrants who arrived in the US before April 2001 to pursue a bureaucratic, but specific 11-year road to citizenship. Immigrants who arrived after the date would have limited options. The US Congress remains at odds with the business community over the plan for low-skilled immigrants as well as those who are highly skilled. Foreigners students frequently make up the majority of students in university science and math programs, and could potentially contribute to innovative US industry. But industry lobbyists argue that the best foreign graduates are discouraged by restrictive visa and citizenship criteria. From all indications, visa limits for workers at all skill levels is inevitable with any immigration legislation, but one version of the immigration legislation would eliminate limits for holders of advanced degrees. Fewer US students focus on science, math, technology and engineering at the university level, while other nations are streamlining their immigration programs specifically to attract scientific talent. According to a human-resources lawyer for Intel Corp., it doesn't make sense to educate foreign talent "and then send them to our global competition to compete against us." – YaleGlobal

Businesses Make a Push for High-Skilled Foreign Workers

June Kronholz
Friday, April 7, 2006

Last year, Stanford University awarded 88 Ph.D.s in electrical engineering, 49 of which went to foreign-born students. U.S. business would like to hang on to these kinds of prized graduates and not lose them to the world -- which is one reason why it has a big stake in the immigration bill that is consuming the Senate.

The fate of millions of illegal immigrants, most of them low-skilled workers, dominates that debate. But the future of thousands of high-skilled foreign workers seeking admission to the country -- scientists, mathematicians, health-care workers -- may be equally important to the U.S. economy. Because of the key role many of those workers play in cutting-edge businesses, industry lobbyists are pushing measures that would more than double the number of visas available to skilled workers.

But if the years-long effort to overhaul the U.S. immigration system collapses, the issue of those visas could be buried in the rubble. "Our biggest fear is that the other issue -- the undocumented workers -- bogs down and threatens the entire bill," says Ralph Hellman of the Information Technology Industry Council, a Washington-based trade group.

President Bush waded into the fray yesterday, urging senators to come to a quick conclusion, and Democrats were invited into what had been Republican-only meetings to find a compromise that can win the 60 votes needed to close debate. More talks will be held today between Sens. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) and John McCain (R., Ariz.). But last evening, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) was already moving to introduce a new Republican plan to address the legal status of undocumented workers in the U.S.

Those who arrived before April 2001 could begin an arduous but clear 11-year path to citizenship similar to that outlined in the Senate Judiciary Committee bill reported last week. But to appease conservatives, those who have come in the past five years are promised less.

In fact, anyone who can't prove that he or she was here legally before January 2004 would risk deportatio, while a third, middle group of people who arrived in the intervening years could enter a temporary worker program. The annual cap on the number of visas for the program in the underlying Judiciary bill would be waived for these workers, but a Frist aide said they would be required within three years to get their paperwork in order, go to a port of entry of the U.S. and re-enter legally with a work permit.

As seen in the current talks, increasing visa limits for workers at all skill levels is certain to be part of any future compromise. Business is eager for more low-skilled immigration to keep the service and construction industries humming, but it's also lobbying hard for workers for high-tech and science-based industries.

Currently, only 65,000 three-year visas are available to skilled workers each year, and demand for those slots was so strong in the fiscal year that started in October 2005 that employers, who must sponsor those workers, snapped up all of them by last August.

The government also gives out 140,000 employment-based visas yearly -- so-called green cards that put immigrants on the track to citizenship. But those visas are shared equally among all sending countries. That means that an employer hoping to hire a Chinese- or Indian-born worker now has at least a five-year wait before the immigration service even reads the application.

Employers from hospitals to high schools increasingly are reliant on foreign workers who enter the U.S. through the employment-visa line. But high-tech employers are particularly dependent, and they say that the paucity of visas threatens their competitiveness.

Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc. says about 500 of its 19,000 domestic employees are waiting for U.S. green cards, and that most of them are electrical engineers. Those workers are in the U.S. on temporary work permits, but while their green-card applications are pending, they can't change work assignments or cities to meet their companies' needs.

Employers are particularly irked by the visa system's treatment of foreign-born scientists who must leave the country after finishing their studies if a U.S. company can't secure a visa to hire them. As it is, U.S.-born students account for only about half the science, math, technology and engineering advanced-degree holders turned out by American universities yearly.

When companies run out of U.S.-born workers, and then can't hire immigrants, "projects get dropped or delayed, so development is slowed down," says Patrick Duffy, a human-resources lawyer for Intel Corp."It's not as if the work won't get done, it's where will the work get done," adds Sandra Boyd, who heads a National Association of Manufacturers competitiveness initiative.

In 1999, at the height of the dot-com bubble, high-tech industries convinced Congress to triple the number of temporary visas available every year. That largely met the economy's needs, says the Information Technology council. But the measure expired in 2003, and with the high-tech industry then ailing, employers didn't push for an extension.

Two years ago, under renewed pressure from employers, Congress made a modest adjustment. It exempted 20,000 advanced-degree holders who already were studying at U.S. universities from the cap on temporary visas, allowing them to take jobs with U.S. employers. But again, demand was so strong that those slots were filled on Jan. 9 for the fiscal year beginning in October.

"It doesn't make sense to educate this talent and then send them to our global competition to compete against us," says Intel's Mr. Duffy.

Lobbyists for the technology industry say they get a sympathetic hearing on Capitol Hill with that argument. The immigration bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week increases the number of green cards to 290,000 and the number of temporary visas to 115,000.It also exempts U.S.-educated advanced-degree holders in science, technology, engineering and math from both of those caps, and puts them on an immediate path to citizenship, if they choose to stay in the U.S. after finishing their degrees.

An immigration bill passed by the House in December focuses on enforcing immigration laws on the border and in workplaces.

But the Information Technology council's Mr. Hellman says he expects that House members who are appointed to the conference committee that reconciles the House and Senate versions of any immigration bills will support measures aimed at high-skilled workers.If that compromise bill does more than just enhance enforcement, he says, "our [issue] is first in line in terms of support.

"But Congress might not get that far. Absent some agreement this morning between Sens. McCain and Kennedy, the Senate splits over undocumented workers now appear headed toward two cloture votes - neither of which will succeed to cut off debate on the Judiciary bill and Mr. Frist's new alternative. "I cannot see the end of the tunnel to know if there is a light there," said Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) last night.

If that happens, industry lobbyists say they would try to attach their visa measures to a spending bill later in the year. That risks further delay and uncertainty, though, even while competitors, including Britain, are streamlining their immigration systems to attract high-skilled workers. "We'll find ourselves playing catch-up," warns the National Association of Manufacturers' Ms. Boyd.

© Copyright 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.