Lift the H-1B cap: An immigration fix we can agree on

Lift the H-1B cap: An immigration fix we can agree on

In the midst of a tense government shutdown, House Democrats have introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Unfortunately, it is dead on arrival, as lawmakers cannot agree on border security measures and the fate of America’s undocumented immigrants.

This is a wasted opportunity. Instead of pressing for comprehensive reform, lawmakers should focus on an area where there is longstanding agreement: Lifting the annual cap on H-1B work visas for foreign nationals.

The H-1B visa allows foreign nationals to legally work in America for three to six years. It is the vehicle of choice for companies that want to retain highly-skilled, foreign-born employees. The number of new visas issued each year, however, is capped at 65,000, a number set back in 1990 – making it older than the digital answering machine. More than 124,000 applications were submitted in the first five days of filing this year. It needs to be enlarged.

America’s openness to high-skilled immigrants has been a crucial component of its success. It is how a mathematician’s escape from Soviet oppression gave the U.S. a six-year-old Sergey Brin, who would one day found Google. It is also how a fire in a London woolens shop brought William Procter to America, where he met James Gamble, the son of an Irish protestant minister, and together they created a consumer goods empire in Procter & Gamble. And it’s how a 20-year-old Andy Grove led his family across the border of Communist-controlled Hungary and ultimately to the U.S., where he would one day transform Intel into the world’s largest manufacturer of semiconductors.

High-skilled immigrants aren’t taking away jobs, they’re creating them. This is perhaps most evident in America’s growing tech sector. Immigrants founded nearly a quarter of Silicon Valley tech start-ups, according to a study by the Kauffman Foundation. The Bay Area Council Economic Institute studied the multiplier effect of these tech sector firms and calculated that every new tech-industry job generates four more in other sectors.

But today’s immigration rules make it difficult for these businesses to recruit top talent. If I hadn’t married an American, it would have been challenging – perhaps too cumbersome – to get the work visa needed to relocate my technology company’s headquarters from London to New York City two years ago. The Project Manager that I intended to accompany me to the U.S. couldn’t get one and had to return to Europe. And just this year, a promising young college graduate – who started as an intern and quickly became an indispensable member of our young team – is now temporarily working for us remotely from Europe, unable to get an H-1B visa this year.

These are dangerous policies to maintain at a time when the gap between supply and demand for high-skilled jobs is widening. According to the Partnership for a New American Economy, the U.S. is facing a shortage of more than 200,000 advanced-degree holders in science, technology, engineering and math by 2018. Meanwhile, more than half of America’s PhDs are foreigners. In other words, America is training – but not retaining – unprecedented numbers of high-skilled foreign nationals.

Faced with Congressional inertia, the tech sector is going to great lengths to find a solution. A notable example in the works is BlueSeed, which aims to float a cruise ship 12 miles off the San Francisco coast in international waters. There, foreign nationals could work in proximity to Silicon Valley without a work visa. In other words, tech companies and their employees that would otherwise be located on U.S. soil – investing and paying taxes – would be in international waters, paying taxes to another country’s government and inconveniencing companies.

Lifting the annual cap on H-1B work visas for foreign nationals is a simple, demand-driven proposal that has enjoyed bipartisan support through the tortuous immigration battles fought in Washington this year. It would create jobs and generate tax revenues at a time when economic growth is badly needed. Congress should dispense with the theatrics of the current bid for comprehensive immigration reform, and instead work on piecemeal legislation to put more of the world’s talent to work for America.

Adam Lewis is a tech entrepreneur and CEO of Apploi, a mobile recruiting application.

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