Skilled Masses

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Friday, May 4, 2007

THE IMMIGRATION reform debate has largely revolved around immigrants who do jobs Americans are not willing to do. But what about immigrants who do the jobs Americans are not able to do?

The H-1B visa, for "specialty occupation workers" in high-tech fields such as medicine, computers and engineering, is capped at 65,000 a year. Many of those industries face a shortage of skilled American labor. So, on April 2, the first day visa applications were accepted for fiscal 2008, few were surprised that the quota was hit within hours. By law, the 123,480 applications received in the first two days will be processed by lottery.

The tens of thousands of H-1B rejects will constitute some of the world's best and brightest, and America is foolish to block them from the U.S. economy. After all, according to the National Science Foundation, a third of all science and engineering doctorates awarded in the United States go to foreign students (whose numbers are not limited). And according to the National Venture Capital Association, over the past 15 years one out of every four public companies backed by venture capital was started by an immigrant (including Google and eBay). The current H-1B cap is outdated, having been set by Congress before the Internet boom and the related blossoming of high-tech companies. Recognizing the need for foreign talent to keep U.S. high-tech industries on the cutting edge, Congress temporarily raised the ceiling to 195,000 for fiscal 2001 through 2003, only to let it relapse out of neglect. Every year since, the cap has been reached well before the start of the fiscal year, though this year was the first time it was met the first day.

For those applicants not selected in this year's lottery -- or who were shut out of the process entirely because they need a diploma to apply but had not graduated by April 3 -- the next opportunity to file an H-1B petition is not until April 1, 2008. If those applications are accepted, the applicants will be able to start work on Oct. 1, 2008. But by that time, immigration experts and leaders in high-tech industries fear, many of the workers will have returned home or moved to countries such as Australia that have recently changed their immigration regulations to attract highly skilled workers. It may not be long before U.S. companies follow the talent overseas.

Congress is considering several bills that address the need to reform the H-1B program, including two that would raise the cap to 115,000. If they want America's high-tech industries to stay innovative, members of Congress should address the labor problem vis-à-vis visas -- and preferably before the class of 2007 heads home.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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