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Tweaking immigration

Three narrowly targeted reforms could ease the green-card problem while helping the economy.

August 08, 2008

The public outcry that derailed last year's push for comprehensive immigration reform hasn't stopped lawmakers from trying to change immigration law. It has merely scaled back their ambitions. Prodded by advocacy groups on both sides of the issue, members of Congress are considering various narrowly targeted proposals -- "rifle shots," in Washington parlance -- to ease or tighten the limits on legal entry. These include bills to allow more guest workers to be hired by farmers and other seasonal employers, relieve the backlog in visa requests by foreign workers with high-tech skills, and reauthorize the program that verifies applicants' eligibility for employment.

We still believe that federal immigration law needs an overhaul, not just a tune-up. Some of the expansions sought in guest worker programs could help reduce illegal immigration, but they should be considered as part of a broader approach that addresses complaints about the current temporary-visa system. That's particularly true for skilled or specialty workers' H-1B visas, which in the last two years have been snapped up the first day applications could be filed. Supporters agitate for a huge increase in the H-1B program, but opponents say it drives down wages and prevents guest workers from leaving jobs they don't like. And it's hard for the public to accept the need for more short-term foreign workers when the economy is slowing and unemployment is mounting.

Nevertheless, there is an interim step Congress could take that would help the economy in general and the high-tech industry in particular: Make it easier for skilled foreign workers to obtain green cards and become permanent U.S. residents. Today, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services makes 140,000 green cards a year available to foreigners sponsored by American employers, with preference given to the most educated or talented applicants. About 226,000 more cards are available for foreigners sponsored by relatives here. Just because a card is available, however, doesn't mean it will be issued. Tech firms complain that thousands of foreign workers in the U.S. fail to receive green cards each year because of bureaucratic holdups, creating a vast backlog and increasing the demand for H-1B visas.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) and a handful of Republican allies have introduced three bills that would ease that backlog. One, HR 5882:h5882ih.txt.pdf, would increase each year's allotment of green cards by the number left over from previous years, effectively turning the ceiling into a floor. The measure would apply to both employer-sponsored and family-related applicants. Another, HR 6039:h6039ih.txt.pdf (along with a matching Senate bill, S 3084:s3084is.txt.pdf), would provide employer-sponsored cards to any foreigner with a U.S. job offer who earns an advanced degree in science, technology, math or engineering from a U.S. college or university. And a third, HR 5921:h5921ih.txt.pdf, would remove the per-country caps on employer-sponsored cards.

Because the first two measures would clearly increase the population of legal immigrants, they are opposed by groups such as NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which want Congress to push the limits in the other direction. One of their main arguments is that more U.S. jobs should be reserved for U.S. workers. But high-tech companies have long complained that U.S. schools aren't producing nearly enough graduates interested in or prepared for careers in math, science and engineering. A survey last year of 17 California colleges and universities lends credence to that argument; it found that nearly 40% of all master's degrees in engineering that year had gone to foreign students, as had almost two-thirds of the engineering PhDs.

Even if there were no shortage of Americans with high-tech skills, it would be a mistake to assume that limiting foreign workers automatically yields more jobs for citizens. The competition for jobs is increasingly global, and firms are chasing talent (and lower costs) wherever it's concentrated. Look at Microsoft -- it expanded into Vancouver, Canada, last year in part because of the problems posed by U.S. immigration caps. Increasing the supply of green cards would allow more talented foreigners to stay here, where they were educated and trained, and where their productivity and entrepreneurial drive can create jobs. Over the last 15 years, immigrants have launched a fourth of the start-ups in the U.S. that attracted venture capital dollars. With the economy slipping, that statistic alone makes a persuasive argument for more green cards.

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