More Green Cards, Not H-1B Visas, Is the Real Fix
America is unique because it turns newcomers into Americans
December 28, 2011
U.S. News & World Report asks: "Should H-1B visas be easier to get?" It's the wrong question.
A bit of historical perspective may help. I was the chairman of the immigration subcommittee in 1990 when we defined the basic structure of the H-1B category in the Immigration Act of 1990, including the original 65,000 annual cap. I'm proud that I was the author and floor manager of that legislation, particularly because it also increased the number of green cards available for employment-based immigrants from 57,000 to the current 140,000, while shifting the focus toward higher-skilled immigrants. That was the last time Congress approved an actual increase in legal immigration.
Our goal in creating the H-1B cap was to limit temporary visas for filling permanent jobs in favor of the use of permanent immigrant visas—"green cards."
Much of today's debate over H-1B echoes what was said in the '80s. But it's even more important that, like the 1980s, the visa categories for skilled employment-based immigrants are again backlogged.
It is clear from the debates over H-1B during the past 15 years that there will be continuing controversy over the "right" contours for that category. But while the H-1B controversy drags on, there is a more pressing problem: facilitating green cards for the many advanced-degree graduates of STEM programs in America's top universities.
We need these highly skilled graduates because they create jobs in America for Americans—and they help keep them here.
Whose welcome mat will be most attractive? Globalization has made it easier for multinational companies to go where the talent goes, rather than insist that the talent stay in America. With our unemployment rate so high, we desperately need to hold on to these jobs—those filled by Americans and those that can be filled by foreign-born graduates on their way to becoming Americans—as well as the jobs that their work will create.
That is what the H-1B is designed to do, some might say. No, not really. As a temporary, nonimmigrant category that ties employees to particular employers, it is not America's most effective welcome mat. In fact, it is increasingly clear that relying on the H-1B instead of welcoming with green cards drives away exactly the job creators we want to keep.
What has made America unique in the world over the centuries has been turning newcomers into Americans. These STEM graduates, like generations before them, do not want to be "temporary workers" valued only as economic factors. Rather they are skilled individuals, often with families, who seek a secure place in a competitive workplace and a welcoming community. They're not just workers. They're people.
They want to stay permanently in America and become Americans. This "Ellis Island" model of immigration is what sets us apart in the global competition for talent.
I represent the IEEE-USA, which is a wide range of electrical and electronics engineers. Many are native born, others are immigrants. Student chapters abound, with their mixture of "grown-up here" and "came from abroad" students. We represent the Americans who compete most directly with skilled immigrants. So it is significant that there is a consensus among our membership.
Our members do not want to be part of a system that uses "temporary visas" to advantage or disadvantage some employees over others. We want a workplace where the competition is fair because the playing field is level. With "green cards," you don't need endless rules of regarding portability and prevailing wage. The job market sorts all this out. Employers keep their workers by providing an attractive employment opportunity. Employees keep their working conditions up by having options. That is the better way to attract and keep foreign-born talent without unfairly competing with American workers or exploiting the foreign born.
In short, there are no problems that advocates for the H-1B imagine it can solve for which green cards are not a better solution. And there are no problems with the H-1B program itself that a system built on green cards will not help to fix. So we suggest the participants in this online debate help us change the subject—from the H-1B to green cards.