The Gathering Storm: Immigration Policy for Skilled Workers Needs a Major Overhaul

Jul 1, 2008
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

There is a major shortage of talent. Critically needed foreign workers cannot make their way here because temporary work visas are snapped up on the first day they become available. If you were thinking this is about high-tech workers, you would be wrong. This is about fashion models.

What few people know (and maybe even fewer care to) is that currently a fashion model coming to America has to compete for the same H1-B visas that every immigrant software engineer and developer does. This is a crisis. Summer is upon us and what are the editors of swimsuit editions supposed to do when visas run out on the first day they are available — take pictures in France and Photoshop in a background from California? Fast action is needed. Disaster looms. The fantasy lives of millions of teenage boys and voyeurs are in jeopardy.

Enter Anthony Weiner. The congressman from New York is riding (or taking the subway) to the rescue. Representative Weiner has sponsored a bill in Congress that would create a separate category of visas for fashion models, the P-4. If passed, the beauties would not be competing with the geeks and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Weiner for President.

Jokes apart, the Weiner bill — HR 4080, does highlight a fundamental problem with U.S. immigration policy. With regards to talent we have no policy. What we do have are immigration laws dating to the 1940s that have been sporadically modified without much of a plan or any broader understanding of the strategic implications. That made little difference in the past with the U.S. being the best and, to some extent the only, destination for skilled talent.

While the U.S. is still a very attractive place, alternatives are emerging. I wrote about this in a recent article on increasing competition for talent from the European Union and other countries. The Blue Card program created by the EU is explicitly targeted at skilled workers, unlike the Green Card, which is predominantly a vehicle for reuniting families. Our immigration policy does little to attract high-caliber talent in fields like technology and sciences and does not differentiate much between categories of talent. There are no strategic underpinnings to support employers in the war for talent.

Take the H-1B program as an example.

The number of visas available — 85,000 — is an arbitrary number with no basis in demand. It has not been adjusted despite the fact that unemployment among high-tech workers is about 3% and there is no evidence whatsoever that skilled immigrant workers have any negative impact on the wages or the employment of domestic workers. Worse yet, H-1B visas are now allocated by lottery, i.e., at random. Need or the value of particular skills is not a factor.

Limited Options

There are some options available to employers frustrated with the situation. L-1 visas are one. These allow a company to transfer employees to the U.S. from their offices abroad for periods of up to five years. Employees must have worked for the company for at least one year before an L-1 can be issued. Unlike H-1Bs, there is no cap for L-1s.

Another option is the EB-5 program. Richard Herman of Herman Associates appraised me about this. Under EB-5, foreign investors can receive a green card if they invest at least $500,000 in a designated “investment center” and create 10 direct or indirect jobs, or $1 million outside the center. There are 10,000 green cards available under the EB-5 program, but only a small fraction get used; last year the program benefitted just 779 individuals. The program follows the lead of similar programs in Australia and Canada. That is why Microsoft has a development center in Vancouver that attracts a lot of talent.

Some communities are using the EB-5 program to create areas designed to attract immigrant talent —high-skill immigration zones. The Cleveland Council on World Affairs is leading a pilot initiative called the Talent Blueprint intended to bring together public and private entities to collaborate around the attraction of foreign talent and capital into Northeast Ohio. The region has over 10,000 openings for workers in fields related to bio-tech. Richard Herman and his associates are circulating among a large group of national thought and policy leaders the idea of Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities creating these zones to welcome both foreign talent and capital back to communities once known for their large immigrant populations that have now seen that high rate of immigrant influx migrate to places such as Atlanta, Silicon Valley, and Raleigh-Durham.

No Easy Solutions

The options described above are good ideas but they can have a small impact at best. The problem of talent shortages needs a comprehensive solution in terms of both domestic policy and immigration. But there is no one leading such an effort. Ideally there would be a cabinet-level position focused on talent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 1.64 million job openings for IT professionals between now and 2016. Yet, despite all the evidence that problems of supply are worsening, immigration policy for skilled talent remains entangled in political posturing and colored by issues of illegal immigration.

Organizations like FAIR and the self-styled Center for Immigration Studies, which make no differentiation between an agricultural worker and a software engineer, drum up wild theories about a gigantic conspiracy between employers to hire immigrant talent at-below market rates and deprive domestic workers of jobs. One of their more popular claims is that there is sufficient supply of domestic workers for high tech jobs. It’s difficult to square that with the fact that undergraduate enrollment in computer science programs has been in near free-fall since 2000, down by almost 50%. Another is that large numbers of H-1B visa holders become illegal aliens. But all that rhetoric does have some effect. When NAFTA was passed, the TN visa category was included only after the White House accepted demands that Mexican professionals not be given the same preferential treatment as Canadians. It took until 2004 to remove this bow to what some commentators described as the Titanic principle (first class gets better treatment than steerage).

The recruiting industry is not in a good position to influence this situation. The industry is not an organized lobby. No lobbying firm represents recruiting interests in Washington, while even North Korea and Ultimate Fighting are represented. Then again, it may not help much. Congress usually has matters of far greater national importance to deal with — such as investigating the New England Patriots for stealing their opponents’ signals, and the recently passed Primate Safety Act to ensure the proper treatment of monkeys.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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