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President’s Inaugural Address Highlights Needs for Reform of Highly-Skilled Immigrant and Work Visa Programs

2013_Inauguration_Obama_oath.JPGThe issue of immigration in the high-tech sector featured prominently in President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address on Monday, January 21, 2013. Business leaders and immigration advocates have been calling for reforms to work visas, particularly H-1B visas. They cite a demand for highly-skilled workers and the injustice of forcing students, upon graduation with an advanced degree, to return to their home country even if they would prefer to stay–and work–in the U.S. The need for immigration reform is great in many areas, including reuniting families or keeping families together, offering shelter to people fleeing persecution, and simply offering people a chance to achieve the American dream. Meeting the needs of the American business community, particularly the demand for workers with high-tech skills, is a vitally important part of immigration reform.

President Obama on High-Tech Immigration Reform

President Obama has referenced the need to expand immigration for workers with high-tech skills several times recently. In his second inaugural address, he spoke of the need to make further investments in science, technology, education, and mathematics (STEM) education, and to promote immigration for individuals to study and work in those fields. The president also addressed immigration reform during his 2012 State of the Union Address last year, noting that if the thousands of immigrant students who obtain STEM degrees are not allowed to remain in the U.S. after graduation, they will “invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else.”

High-Tech Needs

A study by the Brookings Institution, published in July 2012, shows a steady increase in demand for H-1B worker visas, highest in cities with major high-tech industries, such as Silicon Valley and New York. Significant declines in demand occurred along with declines in the market, but the overall trend is upward. The demand for H-1B visas averaged 336,309 per year from 2001 until 2011. Demand declined after the 2001 dot-com bust and the September 11 attacks, but began rising again after reaching a low of 220,731 in 2003. It dipped again after the various economic problems beginning in 2007, after reaching a 2007 high of 404,907, but began an increase again in 2010. Even at its lowest point, annual demand has remained far above the maximum number of visas authorized by statute. The average number of visas actually issued per year for that time period was 129,134, more than 200,000 lower than the average annual demand.

H-1B Reforms

Opponents of work visa reform may argue that such visas take jobs away from Americans. H-1B visa petitions require certification from the U.S. Department of Labor, however, indicating that qualified workers are not readily available within the U.S. While the system is far from perfect, its design is intended to minimize, if not eliminate, the impact of immigrant workers on the availability of jobs for U.S. citizens and permanent residents. A Washington Post columnist described a lack of understanding of how H-1B visas affect America’s global competitiveness, and how a “war for talent” between countries is allegedly driving up, rather than depressing, wages in high-tech jobs.

The Rant

Allowing for high-tech, skilled, STEM immigration visas is critical to major sectors of the American economy. Addressing the annual cap on H-1B visas is still only a temporary solution, as many H-1B workers are forced to wait several years in queue for a green card. The STEM visa component of immigration reform must be comprehensive in itself, addressing the temporary need for labor using the nonimmigrant H-1B visa, as well as a more permanent solution via the green card. Though a variety of interests have opposed recent measures to increase the number of STEM visas, it is clear that this issue is critical for American high-tech businesses.

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The Government’s War on H-1Bs, ImmigRantings, October 11, 2012
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Photo credit: By Farragutful (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.