Commentary

Skilled Immigration: The New Common Ground in the Reform Debate

On Monday, the government began accepting applications for the H-1B highly skilled worker visa program. This year’s 85,000 H-1B slots are expected to be gone by Friday.

The H-1B visa program allows highly skilled immigrants to work in the United States for up to six years with the option of applying for a green card. If industry experts, immigration attorneys, and government spokesmen are right and the annual H-1B cap is hit within a week of applications being made available, it will be the first time that has happened since 2008.

H-1Bs are a bellwether for the economy. As growth picks up, so do filings for H-1B applications. As unemployment skyrockets, filings for H-1B applications plummet. The high demand for these visas this year is a good omen for the economy, and hopefully for immigration reform efforts as well. Highly skilled immigrants are generally considered the “sugar” in any immigration reform efforts — they are used to “sweeten” the other controversial elements like legalization.

The fact that H-1B slots are being filled so quickly this year suggests that the economy is recovering and America’s highly skilled immigration system is in desperate need of expansion and reform.”

After all, highly skilled immigrants tend to speak English, and there’s little fear of them abusing welfare or committing crimes. Their children typically excel at school, are economically successful, and are more culturally integrated than their parents.

Even committed immigration skeptic Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) has sponsored a bill to increase the number of green cards for skilled immigrant workers educated in the U.S., saying: “In a global economy, we cannot afford to educate these foreign graduates in the U.S. and then send them back home to work for our competitors.”

The members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight — a bipartisan group of senators who are crafting an immigration reform bill — seem to agree that the U.S. should admit more high-skilled immigrants and appear to be using high-skilled immigration reform as a sweetener in negotiations over immigration reform more generally.

But even with growing support for high-skilled immigration, there remain critics. A recent New York Times op-ed by Ross Eisenbrey called “America’s Genius Glut” (no joke) argued that America has too many skilled people as it is, wages for those workers are falling, and unemployment is too high to justify allowing more skilled workers into the country.

On the contrary, average wages for H-1B workers have been increasing steadily since 2008 — by almost $6,000, according to data put together by Citizenship and Immigration Services. If American wages are stagnant, as Eisenbrey says, why are companies paying more for foreign workers today than they did just a few years ago?

The evidence that foreign skilled immigrants drive down American wages is scant.

Claims that they’re taking jobs away from Americans are also specious. Ninety-nine percent of new H-1B workers in 2011 had a bachelor’s degree or higher. The unemployment rate for similar American workers is 3.7 percent, lower than a year ago. That unemployment rate is also the lowest of all educational groups. Just over half of all H-1B workers work in the computer industry, where unemployment is under 4 percent.

Let’s also not forget how many employment opportunities wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the highly skilled immigrants who came in the past. A stunning 40 percent of 2010 Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.

A survey of 50 top venture-funded companies carried out by the National Foundation for American Policy found that 48 percent of those companies had at least one immigrant founder. Seventy-five percent of the firms surveyed had one or more skilled immigrants as a key member of its product development or management teams. Many of those firms would not exist if those vital immigrant employees were not legally allowed to work.

There are problems with H-1B workers — most notably their inability to switch jobs easily, which should be rectified. Workers should be free to move to employers who are willing to hire them. The recent Immigration Innovation (“I-Squared”) Act would go a long way toward increasing worker mobility, increasing the number of skilled immigrants who can come, and lowering the burdens of attracting talent.

The fact that H-1B slots are being filled so quickly this year suggests that the economy is recovering and America’s highly skilled immigration system is in desperate need of expansion and reform. It is encouraging that the Senate Gang of Eight seems to agree. As negotiations continue, remaining skeptics cannot ignore the evidence that high-skilled immigration is good for the United States.

Alex Nowrasteh is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute.