Thursday, September 6, 2007

Keeping Competitive

The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber has joined the effort of Compete America, a coalition of corporations, trade associations, and educators, and others urging Congress to remain focused on taking steps this year to address the highly-skilled immigration crisis facing U.S. employers by reforming the H-1B visa and employment-based green card systems.

Highly-educated foreign professionals play a significant role in allowing the United States to maintain an innovative edge over its global competitors. However, our outdated immigration system has made it harder and harder for qualified foreign talent to come to and remain in this country and contribute to our nation’s intellectual capital and economic well-being, which, ultimately, poses a serious threat to our global leadership position.

Consider that in April of this year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) received over 133,000 H-1B visa applications for only 65,000 available slots for fiscal year 2008 – on the very first day applications could be accepted. This arbitrary, unrealistic cap sends the message that America’s doors are closed and that these individuals, many of whom have been educated in U.S. universities, should look for opportunity elsewhere. In most cases, those opportunities will be with our foreign competitors.

The H-1B visa program is often used as a temporary step toward permanent resident status for top talent, with the ultimate goal being the attainment of an employment-based (EB) green card. Yet, the shortage of available EB green cards and the massive backlog of pending applications are equally as dire as the H-1B shortage. Those seeking an EB green card can face delays of up to five years or more, leaving them in professional limbo. Furthermore, the existing backlog serves as a major impediment for companies’ recruitment and retention efforts of qualified professionals who wish to remain and work in the United States.

Policymakers have recognized the important contributions of these individuals and the imperative of reforming our highly-skilled immigration system. The Chamber was pleased to see these issues addressed as part of the earlier comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the Senate, lead by Sen. Maria Cantwell, and was disappointed when, in the end, it failed to pass a final bill.

Despite this outcome, there are further opportunities for action on these issues this year. The House of Representatives is urged to work to identify other appropriate legislative vehicles for alleviating this growing crisis.

Keep America competitive in the world economy. Allowing the best and brightest minds to come to the U.S. is an important component in achieving this goal. An Innovation Agenda to address the need for highly-skilled immigration reform should remain at the top of the list.

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