Business

Senators Push for High-skill Immigration Reform

A group of U.S. senators pledged Tuesday to open up the country's borders to high-skill immigrants, with lawmakers arguing that the U.S. is turning away some of the world's smartest people.

Senators Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, both called for immigration reform that would allow more high-skill workers into the U.S.

The Senate Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee is working on legislation that would open up the country's H-1B visa system and would give green-card work permits to foreign students who graduate from U.S. colleges with science, math and technology degrees, Schumer said during a hearing.

Schumer didn't reveal details of the immigration legislation he's working on, but it follows similar efforts in the House of Representatives. Schumer said he hopes to push forward a comprehensive immigration reform bill, dealing with other immigration issues as well as high-skill jobs, even though other recent attempts to pass a wide-ranging bill have failed.

It doesn't make sense for the U.S. to make foreign graduates return to their home countries, then apply to come back to the U.S. under the H-1B visa program, Schumer said. "If we do not enact an immigration policy that continues to attract the world's best minds, we will cease to be the world's economic leader," he added. "Unfortunately, our broken immigration system discourages the world's best and brightest minds from coming to America to create jobs."

Some other countries are now offering top scientists and engineers huge bonuses to move there, Schumer added.

Representatives of Microsoft and the Nasdaq OMX Group testified in support of loosened immigration rules. Fourteen companies listed on the Nasdaq exchange, employing nearly 500,000 people, have foreign-born founders, said Robert Greifeld, CEO at Nasdaq.

Top tech companies continue to have trouble finding qualified U.S. workers, said Greifeld and Brad Smith, general counsel at Microsoft. The job board StartUpHire.com currently has 13,000 job openings, and Apple, eBay, Google and Yahoo all have more than 550 job openings in the San Jose area, Greifeld said.

Without a new immigration policy, U.S. tech companies will move more jobs overseas, Smith said. "The world economy has changed," he said. "It used to be that people would move in search of the right job, but increasingly, jobs move in search of the right people."

Some senators questioned the need to raise the annual H-1B cap from 85,000. The H-1B and L-1 intracompany visa programs are full of abuse, with some tech companies replacing U.S. workers with cheaper foreign workers, said Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican. The L-1 visa program has no wage requirements, leading some companies to bring low-salary workers to the U.S., he said.

Grassley also questioned whether the U.S. should automatically give green cards to foreign graduates of U.S. colleges. Foreign students could crowd out U.S. students if that happened, he said. "While it is important to keep the best and the brightest, getting a degree from U.S. institutions and universities should not equate to a fast track to citizenship for all," he said. "Universities would, in essence, become visa mills."

Current data doesn't support the assertion by Microsoft and other tech companies that the U.S. doesn't have enough qualified tech workers, added Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Unemployment among tech and science workers, about 5 percent, in the U.S. currently exceeds unemployment among college graduates overall, he said.

"Unless you're going to argue somehow that liberal arts majors are somehow in short supply, it's hard to argue this," he said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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