ONE OF THE UNITED STATES' greatest economic assets is its ability to attract and stimulate the world's most innovative minds. High-skilled immigrants have long played a key role in the country's technological prowess. But that magnetism is being threatened by inadequate visa policies and this year's volatile immigration debate.
The H-1B visa, good for six years, is the main legal means for employers to bring skilled and specialized workers from abroad. College grads make up 98% of H-1B recipients; 48% hold advanced degrees; and a large portion work in technological R&D. They supplement a native-born workforce that earns an inadequate number of science degrees (one-third of all doctorates in science and engineering awarded in the U.S. go to foreign-born students).
At the height of the dot-com boom, Congress raised the cap for H-1Bs to 195,000 per year, though that quota was never reached. Since then, the cap has fallen to 65,000. Next year's limit was filled within the first two months of eligibility, far earlier than ever before. Because the 2006 fiscal year begins in October, that leaves a gaping 16-month hole during which no business can hire skilled foreigners.
This policy discourages talented international students from staying in the U.S. after graduation. Besides the 65,000 H-1Bs, those with recent advanced degrees from U.S. institutions can compete for an additional 20,000 visas. That's only a tiny percentage welcomed from one of the most dynamic segments of society. And those who apply typically have to leave the country one year after graduating, because that often comes before the next H-1B batch is doled out.