Silicon Valley reacts to immigration bill loosening restrictions on high-skilled STEM workers

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

Researchers at UC Davis (Photo Credit: Kevin Tong/UC Davis)

As poet Emma Lazarus’ put it in her iconic sonnet, “The New Colossus,” “Give me your college graduates, your entrepreneurs, your high-skilled huddled masses yearning to work in America.” Well not exactly, but that’s the message the business community wishes our nation’s immigration laws sent to the world’s best and brightest. 

For years Silicon Valley has been calling on Washington to reform our broken immigration system as a means to stimulate our sluggish economy.

“Current laws undermine U.S. competitiveness,” said Sean Randolph, President and CEO of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. “Skilled and educated immigrants from abroad, many with advanced degrees from U.S. universities, are disproportionately represented in STEM–science, technology, engineering and math–occupations, and in the ranks of entrepreneurs. Our immigration policy should focus on attracting and keeping these valuable people here, not keeping them out or sending them away.”

Previous attempts to address one of the least controversial aspects of immigration reform, the flight of high-skilled labor, have floundered. But the 2012 election shifted the political landscape on immigration, forcing reform to the top of the agenda in Washington.

Last week a bipartisan group of four senators, led by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), introduced a bill aimed at filling the unmet demand for high skilled workers. The bill, the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 (or I-Squared Act), would significantly increase the number of temporary work visas available for skilled foreign workers, free up green cards for graduates of American universities, and use the money generated to train the existing U.S. workforce for positions in STEM fields. 

These reforms overlap proposals being pushed by the President and another bipartisan group of senators dubbed the “Gang of 8.”

“A serious commitment by Washington to resolve the issue of visas for high-skilled foreign workers is long overdue,” said Randolph.

Although the unemployment rate in California hovers just below double digits, 9.8 percent, many California companies struggle to fill vacant positions as a result of a workforce that is increasingly ill-equipped for today’s knowledge-based economy. 

Each year much of Silicon Valley races to snag H-1B visas enabling the hire of foreigners to fill specialty occupations. According to Brookings, Silicon Valley has the highest share of H-1B workers in proportion to its workforce in the nation.  

Last year these visas ran out in just over two months.

I-Squared would nearly double the annual maximum of available H-1B visas, an increase from 65,000 to 115,000, but would also allow the cap to fluctuate based on market demand up to an absolute ceiling of 300,000 per year. 

Universities have long lamented the loss of foreign graduates forced to return to their home countries due to the difficulty of obtaining visas. This bill would change that, embracing the idea of “stapling green cards to diplomas” as well as removing per-country caps for immigrants with advanced degrees in STEM fields from U.S. institutions.   

Based on labor market predictions, this provision could prove essential to ensuring California’s future economic growth.

STEM jobs will account for 6 percent of all jobs in California by 2018. That’s a 19 percent increase from 2008, according to Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce. Nearly one in five current STEM workers is foreign-born and research shows half of all firms in Silicon Valley were founded by migrants. 

Despite the shortage, critics argue that expanding the visa program and easing restrictions on green cards for high-skilled labor diminishes job opportunities for U.S. citizens. 

Additionally, California employers can’t rely indefinitely on this foreign solution to a domestic problem, as wages and demand steadily increase abroad. To remain globally competitive California must strengthen its STEM workforce pipeline. 

To address both concerns and expand our home-grown talent pool, the bill would invest revenue generated from application fees for H-1B visas and employment-based green cards in a new grant program to fund STEM education and training. To obtain funds, states would need to submit a proposal to the Department of Education detailing how their plans to improve STEM education would meet the requirements of local employers. 

Rather take away jobs, high skilled migrants would essentially be paying to train their American replacements. 

It’s undeniable that the future health of California’s economy requires an increasing number of skilled professionals. But as the immigration debate heats up, lawmakers must develop long-term pragmatic solutions. Foreign talent may help plug gaps in our workforce in the short-term, but to maintain global competitiveness, California’s domestic workforce must become better equipped with the skills to thrive in the economy of tomorrow. 


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg