Washington – In the widening immigration reform debate, lawmakers and immigration experts agreed Tuesday on the importance of recruiting highly skilled immigrants.
The conclusion was simple — the current green card and visa system is ineffective in retaining scientists, entrepreneurs and other advanced degree graduates to improve America’s position in the increasingly competitive international economy.
“For years, we’ve been on the winning side of the global ‘brain drain,'” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.at a Judiciary immigration subcommittee hearing. “But today, we find ourselves on the other side of the drain.”
According to a report by the Kauffman Foundation, 25 percent of venture-backed startups are founded by immigrants. In Silicon Valley, that number rises to 50 percent.
“Attracting the world’s best and brightest is decidedly in the interests of all Americans,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-S.C., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. But out of more than 1 million immigrants who are granted permanent residence in the U.S., only 12 percent are allowed in for their education and job skills.
Although witnesses before the subcommittee — immigration advocates, scientists and venture capitalists — all called for optimizing the skilled worker recruitment system to compete with other countries, they were less certain on the methods of achieving such task.
Currently in the U.S., immigrants can file for skilled worker status through a green card, which allows permanent residence, and the temporary worker H1-B visa program.
The Judiciary hearing examined two bills that seek reform of the green card and visa system: the Immigration Innovation Act, known as I-Squared, and the Startup Act 3.0, which specifically aims to recruit immigrant entrepreneurs.
Former Connecticut Rep. Bruce Morrison on behalf of IEEE-USA — an organization representing engineers — opposed the increase of H1-B visas because he said green cards are more efficient in retaining skilled workers.
Instead of focusing on H1-B visas, he said “green cards should be processed quickly and quotas should be adequate to meet the command.”
Green card backlog is a critical problem that often drives temporary skilled immigrants back to their native countries because they are unable to obtain the cards. The H1-B visa is seen as a less attractive alternative because it limits the worker in switching employers.
Deepak Kamra, an immigrant who is a partner of the venture capitalist firm Canaan Partners, said that the H-1B visa is ineffective for starting companies in the U.S. He called for the creation of a visa category specifically for startup entrepreneurs, which is outlined in the legislation Startup Act 3.0.
All the while, skilled worker immigration also means immigration for spouses and children.
“It’s really about doing the greatest good to the greatest amount of people,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Il, and that means both employment and family visas.
But the question of international competition for skilled workers remains.
In Canada, there is no backlog for permanent residence applications. According to the Canadian government website, the standard processing time for a permanent residence card is 33 days. By contrast in America, certain Indian and Chinese immigrants, facing quotas, must wait up to a decade to obtain a green card, in spite of what they can offer to the U.S.
“Does any of this make sense, given that Australia, the U.K. and Canada each select over 60 percent of immigrants on the basis of skills and education?” Rep. Goodlatte asked. “The answer is clearly not.”