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What Would Smart Visa Reform Look Like?

Facing what some have said is a crackdown on temporary worker visas, the business world is arguing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services should refocus its legal immigration standards. Businesses that want to hire foreign workers are having an increasingly difficult time doing so. Meanwhile, corporate leaders and experts argue immigrants with technical skills or innovative ideas are taking their talents elsewhere — creating a brain drain that will impact U.S. business for years to come.

Visa difficulties can be seen in fields from agriculture to technology to performing arts. (One high-profile example: Piers Morgan, Larry King’s probable replacement, can’t take over the show this fall due to trouble obtaining a work visa.) Amid criticism over long wait times and inconsistencies for visas for touring artists, USCIS officials said in July it would attempt to improve its visa system.

But large-scale visa reform is necessary to help companies, particularly small businesses, stay afloat, Businessweek reported yesterday:

Maureen Torrey, the 11th-generation owner of a vegetable farm in upstate New York, doesn’t have much in common with Atul Jain, the New Delhi-born founder of 14-year-old Global Software Solutions, an IT consulting firm outside Washington, D.C. Yet both say they’re suffering from an increase in government obstacles to hiring foreigners. “We’re in a crisis situation as we see no action by Washington,” says Torrey, 58, who recently cut back the land she plants by more than 10 percent, to 6,700 acres. [...]

Companies had hoped comprehensive immigration reform would make it easier to hire foreigners. In the absence of action by Congress, though, the federal agencies in charge of approving employment visas are making them harder to get, according to immigration lawyers and advocacy groups. The advocates argue that businesses seeking to legally bring in temporary workers from overseas are being hurt by tighter enforcement of regulations by officials who handle visa applications. Robert Groban, an attorney with law firm Epstein­BeckerGreen in New York, says the agencies are under pressure due to worries that “foreign nationals are taking the place of U.S. workers,” and are reacting to the political climate. IT consultant Jain’s response: “The economy will not improve just because foreign workers can’t come.”

The argument is allowing more workers into the U.S. — if done correctly — would help the economy, not hurt it. It’s not new: Microsoft founder Bill Gates argued in 2005 the government should end caps on H-1B visas or else drive skilled workers to Indian and Chinese companies. “The theory behind the H-1B — that too many smart people are coming — that’s what’s questionable,” Gates said. “It’s very dangerous.”

Republican Carly Fiorina, who is running for Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat from California, said Monday the government should “start from scratch” to create a skilled-worker visa system that would help U.S. companies compete. “We have to put a huge emphasis on attracting the best and the brightest — this is a nation that has always led through immigration,” said Fiorina, the former chief executive at Hewlett-Packard. “Our visa system for high skills workers is in disrepair.”

The system could be improved by making visa admissions more strategic, Darrell West of the Brookings Institute argued in July:

At a time of high unemployment, the most pressing need is for more innovators who will start new businesses and create high-paying jobs. We’ve certainly done so successfully in the past.

A Duke University study by Vivek Wadhwa found that 25% of all the technology and engineering businesses launched in the U.S. between 1995 and 2005 had a foreign-born founder. In Silicon Valley, that number was 52.4%. Much of the high-tech boom of recent years has rested on immigrant entrepreneurship.

Yet only 15% of our annual visas are now set aside for employment purposes. Of these, some go to seasonal agricultural workers, while a small number of H-1B visas (65,000) are reserved for “specialty occupations” such as scientists, engineers, and technological experts.

Instead, the U.S should place a high priority on accepting immigrants with economic talents who might later start jobs in the U.S. or contribute to American business, West argued.

The political climate for visa reform is difficult. Experts say high unemployment has increased fervor over non-citizens taking jobs in the U.S. in the past few years. The sentiment even extends to difficult migrant worker jobs, prompting a tongue-in-cheek challenge to American workers to “Take Our Jobs” by the United Farm Workers of America.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said although people do not want illegal immigrants in the country, they also do not want to pay more for food, Politico reported Wednesday. “But if you didn’t have these folks, you would be spending a lot more — three, four or five times more — for food, or we would have to import food and have all the food security risks,” Vilsack said. “Neither is what Americans want. What they want is what we have. Which is why we need comprehensive immigration reform.”

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