Mark Zuckerberg favors immigration reform (The Washington Post) Mark Zuckerberg favors immigration reform (The Washington Post)

President Obama listed Immigration reform as one of his three main goals when the government reopened after a 16-day shutdown.  With immigration reform, the president hopes not only to address big issues, such as the problems facing the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, but relatively small issues, such as the problems many high-tech companies face in finding qualified computer scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

Although the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hasn’t endorsed the bill, saying instead that “immigration reform is an important subject” and he’s “hopeful” that it will be addressed. The House is more likely to address smaller pieces of the immigration issue — such as the temporary visa program known as H-1B — rather than try to achieve a grand bargain.  The H-1B program allows employers to hire foreign workers who have at least a bachelor’s degree for three years with a one-time option to renew. Computer-related occupations make up about 70 percent of all H1-B workers, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution.

One such piecemeal reform is contained in the SKILLS Visa act (Supplying Knowledge-based Immigrants and Lifting Levels of STEM Visas Act) that would, among other things, increase the cap on H1-B visas for high-skilled workers to 155,000 from the current 65,000 a year and provide 55,000 green cards for foreign graduates of U.S. programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields. It would also increase the fee that U.S. companies pay for the visa applications to fund education and training in the STEM fields.

Many of the ideas in the bill have broad support, including from Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and founder of Facebook.  Earlier this spring, he announced in an opinion piece in The Washington Post that he and other leaders in the high-tech industry, including, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Linked In’s Reid Hoffman, Google’s Eric Schmidt, and venture capitalists John Doerr and Mary Meeker, had formed a group known as FWD.US that has among its goals “comprehensive immigration reform that allows for the hiring of the best and the brightest.”  The group favors increasing the number of high-tech workers who can temporarily work in the United States, arguing that the member firms can’t find enough workers in the country to fill the demand for these high-skilled jobs.

On the other side, groups like the Economic Policy Institute assert that the H-1B program is filled with loopholes that allow firms to hire guest works without first recruiting qualified and available U.S. workers. As the report explained, high-skilled guest workers may be taking the jobs that equally qualified college-educated workers could fill.  If the number of guest workers rises as provided for in the bills Congress is presently considering, there will be more guest workers and STEM green card holders than college graduates in the information technology areas. Guest workers will more than fill the STEM jobs available, as an earlier report by the EPI noted.

Ironically, the Obama administration has already proposed a solution to the so-called “brain drain” of American jobs.  In February, it issued an ambitious goal to increase the number of girls who study STEM subjects, noting that women now represent 24 percent of the STEM workforce.

Women tend to drop out of the STEM fields, even though they earn 33 percent more in this area than in non-STEM jobs.  As an AAUW report titled “Why so few?” noted many STEM fields are seen as male fields, even in mathematics, where almost half of college degrees awarded go to women.

The United States could avoid much of the controversy over guest workers if it figured out a way to keep its girls and young women interested in science. One way to do this would be to eliminate the bias seen against women who are “good” in science.  As professor Eileen Pollack wrote in the New York Times, there is a long-standing bias against women in science that drives women out of the profession, thus depriving the country of a home-grown source of STEM talent.  Eliminating this bias would inevitably release the pressure on this one important aspect of immigration.