Keeping the World's Best and Brightest

A better system for attracting and keeping the world's immigrants is key to U.S. competitiveness.

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You think the Obamacare website is difficult to navigate? Try the immigration system.

Suppose you run a business and want to hire your top-performing summer intern – a master's degree graduate in electrical engineering from India. Good luck. Because just as many of our international competitors are snatching up the highest-skilled workers around the globe, the quirky and outdated U.S. immigration system seems intentionally designed to hold back American employers and entrepreneurs.

Take, for example, Australia and Canada. There, your former intern could likely obtain a visa based on the employment offer and his in-demand skills. But here, that visa would come through in about five years – a wait that repels talent, rather than attracting it.

The reason is that the U.S. sets a strict and meager quota of giving out only 14 percent of each year's green cards (for lawful permanent residents) based on skills – compared to Canada's 63 percent and Australia's two-thirds. That means out of a million green cards our government awards each year, only 140,000 go to immigrants petitioning to come to or stay in the country based on their exceptional economic value. Moreover, about half of those green cards are actually claimed by spouses and children of applicants, not the super-skilled workers our economy craves.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

Our immigration policies are so retrograde that we offer the same number of employment-based green cards today that we did in 1990 – the year the internet was invented (with a great degree of help from high-skilled immigrants, incidentally). To complicate matters further, the U.S. immigration system also discriminates against exceptional workers from certain countries. In other words, if your intern was from Iceland, there would be no waiting period for a green card; if she was from China, you'll wait more than half a decade. That's because current law establishes hard country caps to prohibit citizens of any one country from claiming more than 9,800 employment-based visas – whether that country is the size of India (1.2 billion population) or Iceland (315,000).

What's most stunning is that many of these high-skilled immigrants already live here, and then we force them to leave. Our world class colleges and universities attracted more than 225,000 new international students in 2011-12, and that number is increasing every year. Many earn advanced degrees in fields that create jobs and wealth, such as engineering, computer science and advanced mathematics. But after graduation, we force them to return home. There is only one winner when our immigration system prevents a business owner from hiring that ideal employee after graduation – the country who puts the student we educated to work for its economy.

For the last five years, Congress has sought to reform our immigration system in fits and starts. The best opportunity for reform is now with a bipartisan immigration bill that Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., steered through the Senate with deep bipartisan support. This bill addresses the vexing problem of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already here in a tough, fair, and practical way. Those provisions have garnered the most headlines. But for the economy, the bill brings U.S. immigration into the 21st century.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The Senate's plan would exempt those with a Ph.D. in science, technology, engineering or mathematics from green card caps and vastly increase the number of temporary high-skilled visas available. It would move the future flow of immigration into the country from one principally based on family and proximity to one that also recognizes economic value and skills. It acknowledges that immigrants of all skill levels are essential to economic growth, but that those of the highest skill levels are urgently needed. After all, where do we want the next Intel, Facebook, Amazon, Apple or Google to start – here or in another country?

Across America, business owners are dreaming of hiring the best-educated, most exemplary workers they can find to help grow their companies and our economy, and they need Congress to fix our broken immigration system which currently stands in their way. If we want to compete in the 21st century global economy, we need to pass 21st century immigration reform.

The last true overhaul of our immigration laws was in 1986. A lot has happened since then. Our country and our economy need an updated system, and we can't wait any longer.

Sarah Trumble is Policy Counsel for Social Policy & Politics at Third Way, a moderate think tank in Washington, D.C.

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