Commentary

Why Does the Government Halt Skilled Immigration?

Just two months after the government started accepting applications, next year’s highly skilled worker visas hit the numerical cap. No firm will be now able to apply to sponsor highly skilled foreign workers. Foreign high skilled workers neither “take” American jobs nor do they lower American wages. The low numerical cap, along with other regulations and visa fees, need to go, if the American economy is to grow.

The H-1B visa is a three year, employer-sponsored work visa, renewable one time, for highly skilled foreign workers. Only 85, 000 such visas are issued annually to private firms.

Most H-1B workers specialize in fields demanded by the technology sector, a major source of innovation in the American economy. In May 2012, the unemployment rate for engineers was 5 percent, well below the national average of about 8 percent. There is an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent in computer or mathematical occupations and a 1.9 percent unemployment rate for science workers. H-1B and highly skilled workers fill those niche professions.

Foreign highly skilled workers do not “take” American jobs because the economy doesn’t have a set number of jobs. Highly skilled foreign workers create many of the firms that make America a center of technological innovation. Highly skilled foreign born workers and immigrants were instrumental in the founding of Intel, Sanmina-SCI, Sun Microsystems, eBay, Yahoo and Google, firms which have produced billions of dollars in value and employ thousands of Americans in skilled positions.

Foreign skilled workers do not lower American wages. Immigrants in general do not directly compete with Americans, but instead complement them by bringing in different skills and ability. Highly skilled foreign workers have skills that few Americans possess and are greatly demanded by American firms.

Wages aren’t affected much by H-1Bs because firms hire them as they expand, so the H-1B cap is a limit on expansion rather than a protection of American wages. If the goal of the H-1B was to lower wages, American firms would apply for more of them as a cost saving measure when profits are low and the economy is sour. But H-1B applications pour in when business and the economy are improving. H-1B application patterns show that their goal is not to lower wages.

More than half of all startups in Silicon Valley were started by immigrants, many of them Indians and Chinese who have been living here for over a decade. The government cannot tell who will be a successful entrepreneur, but the evidence is clear that immigrants — especially the highly skilled — are prone to creating businesses. Many H-1B workers apply for green cards while working here, eventually becoming Americans.

The benefits of highly skilled immigration don’t end with the immigrant though. Their children have a remarkable propensity to succeed.

The 2012 winner of the National Spelling Bee was Snigdha Nandipati from San Diego, California. She became the fifth consecutive American of Indian descent to win the contest and the 10th in the last 14 years. Her parents emigrated from India, a major source of skilled foreign immigrants and workers.

Her father, Kirshnarao Nandipati, used his skill as a software engineer to help train his daughter because, as he said after her win, “My English is so weak that I cannot train her. I had to look into finding information of how to prepare her. I am a software engineer. I wrote a program for her that pulls information from the dictionary.”

Spelling bees aren’t the only academic competitions where the children of highly skilled immigrants excel. According to Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy, 28 of the 40 finalists of the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search Competition, known as the “Junior Nobel Prize,” have at least one immigrant parent. Twenty-four of those parents originally came to the U.S. with H1-B visas.

H-1Bs are not perfect and there are several ways to improve them, including removing or expanding the cap as well as the time limit, slashing fees, and eliminating the need for employer sponsorship.

Cutting ourselves off from foreign highly skilled workers makes all of us poorer. America’s strengths of relative free markets, contract, and property rights attract immigrants and skilled foreign workers because they can produce more here and make higher wages than in their home countries. For all of our sakes, we should let them come unhindered.

Alex Nowrasteh is the immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.