Visa program can spur economic growth
As originally appearing in The Patriot Ledger

By James T.  Brett

At a recent discussion of federal immigration policy hosted by the New England Council, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch highlighted the critical role that foreign-born workers play in our economy, filling important jobs throughout the workforce.

Many of these are foreign-born temporary workers – highly skilled professionals such as scientists and engineers – recruited by employers to fill critical roles in our workforce on a short-term basis. The annual cap on the number of visas available for such workers is reached well before employer needs are satisfied.

At the same time, thousands of students from around the globe flock to New England every year to attend our many educational institutions. Many come to this country, and our region in particular, to obtain degrees in science, engineering or mathematics – the so-called “STEM” fields. They are often forced to return to their native countries upon graduation because it is simply too difficult to stay in this country.

While we send these individuals with advanced training and expertise back to other countries, we continue to hear from employers that they struggle to find skilled STEM workers to fill the positions that are available in the 21st-century innovation economy. This simply does not make sense.

While there is great debate over how to reform our immigration system, few would assert that changes are not needed. The New England Council believes that several updates to the nation’s visa programs can be addressed on a bipartisan basis and will have a direct impact on the New England economy.

One such change is increasing the limits on H-1B visas. The H-1B visa program allows employers to supplement their workforce with highly skilled foreign workers. The demand for workers under the H-1B visa program continues to grow. Yet, the limit on the number of H-1B visas issued is quickly reached each year, leaving employers unable to fill certain types of positions.

While raising the cap on the H-1B visa program would help address the need for highly skilled workers, other steps can also be taken. Congress recently considered legislation, the STEM Jobs Act, which would have increased the number of permanent resident “green cards” available to foreign-born graduates with advanced STEM degrees. Providing green cards for the top foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees in the STEM fields offers employers a way to address the skills gap. It also encourages foreign graduates to apply their skills in helping U.S. companies compete globally, rather than sending U.S.-trained workers with those skills to foreign employers. While the legislation failed to pass, we urge Congress to consider other pending legislation that addresses ways to retain foreign-born STEM graduates.

There is no question that the global competition for workers with advanced STEM skills is fierce, and as the nation and New England continue on the path to economic recovery, we must seize on opportunities to retain the skilled workforce needed to achieve that recovery. Adding tens of thousands of highly skilled individuals to the workforce can only strengthen the region’s economic position.

It is clear that the nation’s current immigration framework does not fully recognize the role of immigrants in our economy. While agreement on comprehensive immigration reform is unlikely in the current political climate, Congress should take these simple steps to help close skills gaps and support economic growth.

James T. Brett is president and CEO of The New England Council, a nonpartisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England. The council was formed to promote economic growth.

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