Immigration reform looks rather dead at the moment but the quandary of hundreds of thousands of skilled workers remains. So does the issue of what this country plans to do if it wants to retain its competitive edge in the decades to come. Following is a guest post by Vikas Chowdhry, a techie and blogger at Arthshastra.
Last week, the immigration reform bill, grandiosely termed the "Grand Bargain," failed to gather enough votes and was put on the back burner. This bill had always been more of a Faustian bargain in the eyes of skilled legal non-immigrants because everyone involved in the debate knows that the problems and solutions for the skilled immigrants are vastly different from those of illegal immigrants and yet, the lawmakers insisted on having a single bill to solve all the immigration related problems.
There are all sorts of issues facing skilled legal non-immigrants (A legal non-immigrant is someone legally in the U.S. on a non-immigrant visa - more here), but here's the short version of how it works:
Skilled non-immigrants (Software Developers, Engineers, Doctors, MBAs, etc.) can apply for immigrant visas or green cards under the category called Employment Based (EB) immigration. There are multiple sub-categories within that called EB1, EB2, EB3 based on the skills and education of the potential immigrant. There is an upper limit of 140,000 visas for all EB categories combined, which is further subject to a per-country limit of 7%. So the citizens of the island of Mauritius, India and China each have 9800 visas available to them per year. When you consider the fact that all employment-based visa seekers, like Doctors, Programmers, Scientists and MBAs from a country like India or China have a total of 9800 visas available to them per year, the gravity of the situation and the seriousness of the backlogs becomes readily apparent. Every year, far more people apply for immigrant visas than the numbers available and the resultant bottleneck forces skilled, legal non-immigrants to wait for years in the queue.
In 2006, the U.S. government issued 1,266,264 immigrant visas, of which only 159,081 (12%) were issued to EB categories while 803,335 (63.4%) were issued for Family based categories. Just how many legal, skilled non-immigrants are stuck in the backlog? Conservative numbers put us at 300,000 - 500,000 while some estimates are as many as a million people. When you account for dependents on the primary applicants, you are looking at at least a million affected people, most of them from India and China.
Of course, there is a face behind every number. It is that of my friend's wife, who cannot work despite having an MS in Computer Science, because the H1B numbers have run out and her husband doesn't have a green card yet. Another friend of mine has a PhD but has to go back to India for 3 months on leave - unpaid, of course - until her H1B visa can start in October.
As for me, I went to grad school in the U.S., have been working for 5 years and have spent 7 years in the country legally, but there is still no hope in the near future that I'll get a green card. Many of my friends who moved to U.K. at the same time as I did are all citizens of that country. Many of them have even started their own companies.
This dire situation prompted a bunch of skilled legal non-immigrants to start a group called Immigration Voice. Over the last couple of years, it's been trying to present these problems to U.S. lawmakers, many of whom are not even aware of these issues. Our hope was that they would understand the consequences of this massive backlog and would take steps to redress it. Instead, the bill that they came out with is best described by E. John Krumholtz, director of federal affairs at Microsoft, who said that the bill was “worse than the status quo, and the status quo is a disaster.” The biggest issue that the skilled legal non-immigrants had with this bill was that instead of taking steps to reduce the backlog, it actually would have made it worse.
Now that this bill is effectively dead and it is clear that there is no clear consensus in the U.S. Senate on how to solve the issue of illegal immigrants, one hopes that lawmakers would at least work on fixing the issues facing skilled legal immigrants, because the status quo on this issue hurts both the U.S. economy and the skilled legal workers.
Here are some of the reasons why lawmakers need to act now to fix the immigration process for skilled legal immigrants:
- Skilled immigrants start new companies: According to the research done by Vivek Wadhwa at Duke university, the biggest benefit of skilled, non-immigrants accrues to the U.S. economy when they are allowed to grow roots in the country by granting them permanent resident status. Most skilled permanent residents in the U.S. started their productive life as skilled non-immigrants. However, they realized their entrepreneurial potential only when the permanent hanging sword of non-immigration was removed from their heads.
- It is the equivalent of handing over first round draft picks to other countries: Another article in Business Week reflects on how skilled workers are getting disillusioned by the policies of the U.S. government and are thinking of making a beeline for other, more welcoming countries.The fact that most of us have decided to stick around despite wait times stretching into years is testament to the inherent attractiveness of the U.S. as a country, society and economy to skilled workers.
- The current situation reduces the attractiveness of U.S. universities to international students: The situation we are facing is no secret in our native countries and as a consequence of the booming Indian economy and the uncertainty facing international graduates in getting work visas, fewer students are opting to come to the U.S. for graduate studies. In most graduate schools in the U.S., you will find a large number of international students slogging away in labs and classrooms. However, when they graduate, their biggest concern is whether there will be a work visa available for them.
It is no secret that one of the main reasons why the U.S. is miles ahead of every other country in innovating new products and services is its success in attracting talent from all other countries. With the status quo for the legal immigration process, that attractiveness could vastly diminish.
The media coverage of issues facing skilled non-immigrants is pathetic and hollow. Most journalists write about the number of H1-B visas when dealing with the issues concerning skilled non-immigrants, that is, if they write about them at all. Most media coverage is centered around the fate of 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. In most articles in mainstream newspapers, you will probably find a cursory paragraph about skilled legal immigrants. As far as I know, the Wall Street Journal and Business Week are the only two publications who have devoted some space to talk exclusively about legal skilled immigrants.
The biggest support for skilled non-immigrants has of course come from tech companies like Google and Microsoft. This is not surprising because these companies have thousands of immigrants working for them, they see their contribution and work ethic every day and chose to put their mouth where their money is. Some commentators like Thomas Friedman have been advocating an easier path to green cards for graduates of American universities for some time now. However, as this bill shows, all such arguments have fallen on deaf ears.
Considering the fact that
most of the media have not discussed these issues in details, we hope
that people reading this would remember that skilled, legal
non-immigrants have a big stake in this debate and that the status quo does a grave injustice to their aspirations and
hopes. We also hope to get more support from other immigrant groups and
also from the highly influential and successful Indian-American
community. Because this is not about preferential treatment, but about fair
treatment for a group of people who are law abiding, who have
always kept the faith in the American system and whose contribution to the American economy is simply too great to take for granted.