Why High-Skilled Immigration Reform Is Stuck

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In April, the Senate put together a comprehensive immigration reform bill that was then sent to the House of Representatives where it currently languishes. Once wrapped into the larger comprehensive immigration reform push, high-skilled immigration reform’s success became dependent on the passage of the full bill.

It wasn’t always this way. In the Senate, for example, the Immigration Innovation Act from early 2013 would have raised the hard cap of H-1B visas to 300,000 per year over time, and grant U.S. companies free rein to apply for H-1B visas for workers who graduated from U.S. universities with technical degrees. It was a simple and bipartisan proposal.

It didn’t work. Certain members of the political establishment lined up against the idea of doing immigration reform in pieces. Detractors included former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who wrote an op-ed that included the following bit of language:

Some policy makers are calling for piecemeal changes—such as issuing visas for high-skilled workers and investors, or conferring legal status on immigrants who were illegally brought into the country as children. Congress should avoid such quick fixes and commit itself instead to comprehensive immigration reform.

Following several failed attempts to pass something to help ease high-skilled immigration’s current bottlenecks and difficulties, the issue was wrapped up into what appeared earlier this year to be a possibly functional bipartisan effort to pass quite a bit of reform at once. The Senate got its bill together after extensive horse-trading.

However, once it landed in the House, it was essentially ignored, with the leading party of the lower chamber stating that they wished to work on it in pieces rather than considering the Senate bill as a whole. Since then, little has happened. And as such, high-skilled immigration has stalled.

2012

Given how stuck we now appear to be, it’s worth looking back to when we almost — maybe — had something. Rep. Lamar Smith introduced a bill in late 2012 that would have allowed for 55,000 more green cards each year for foreign STEM graduates of U.S. universities. A modest but perhaps workable idea. However, Rep. Smith included in his proposal the deletion of the green card lottery (which is officially known as the Diversity Visa Program). That’s where the 55,000 figure came from: The green card lottery awards 55,000 visas per year.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren then introduced a similar bill, awarding the same number of visas, but without ending the green card lottery. So Rep. Smith, a Republican, and Rep. Lofgren, a Democrat, had legislation in mind that would add the same number of visas, with only a single difference. Surely something could be worked out? No.

2013

So where are we today? Mired. In late August, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent asked publicly if immigration reform is dead, concluding that:

Ultimately the outcome will turn on whether the GOP leadership allows votes on enough piecemeal measures — or even a vote on a comprehensive House gang of seven bill — to take to conference negotiations; whether the GOP leadership will decide to go to conference at all; and whether the leadership will allow a vote on something out of conference that lacks a majority of Republicans.

Today, that chance appears low. As quoted The Hill this week, Alfonso Aguilar, an activist in favor of comprehensive reform, is concerned over hearing the phrase “if we have time,” regarding progress on the immigration question. If reform of the U.S. immigration system remains a low priority, there will not be enough political will or momentum to do a damn thing.

And that keeps high-skilled immigration moot as a topic, as it has now been lashed aboard the larger immigration wagon of non-change.

There has been a recent media wave of discontented parties bemoaning the slow death of comprehensive reform. Politico wrote “Outside groups try to revive immigration reform,” while The Hill published “Dems tire of waiting on immigration reform.” All this is capped by today’s news that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in Washington pushing for reform.

As quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Zuck discussed reform holistically. Claiming to be “optimistic,” the technology leader went on to state that “addressing the 11 million undocumented folks is a lot bigger problem than high-skilled workers.”

That’s actually true, but it’s impossible to separate the two at the moment as we won’t get one without the other, unless the House moves forward with its plan to do reform in chunks and the Senate agrees to go along with the plan, forsaking its own bill.

What impact might Zuckerberg have on Capitol Hill? There doesn’t appear to be much enthusiasm. Slate’s Dave Weigel has I think the best take on the situation: “Wait so Zuckerberg gave an afternoon panel talk in DC, and that’s gonna bring back immigration reform? Hahahahaha.”

Why This Matters

In the first application period of the 2013 H-1B visa application process, 124,000 requests were filed, shooting past the 85,000 cap for the year in five days. The U.S. government treats the first five days of the application process as a single day, and thus the H-1B visa window closed as quickly as it opened. The demand far outstripped supply.

There are strong voices in favor of high-skilled immigration reform, and there are strong voices in opposition. The pro perspective can in this case be summarized as the corporate view, with companies such as Google and Microsoft calling for change. Back when the Immigration Innovation Act wasn’t dead, both companies wrote blog posts in support of its general tenets. As I reported at the time:

This morning, on the introduction of the Immigration Innovation Act, tech giants Google and Microsoft published blog entries in favor of the proposal. […] According to Google, 40 percent of technology companies that have been founded in the United States, were financed by venture capital, and went public, were founded by immigrants.

Microsoft was explicit:

It’s critical that America address the shortage of workers with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. There are many high-skilled, high-paying jobs being created by American businesses across the country that are being left unfilled because of this gap.

How fair are the above arguments? Google’s facts are sound – many technology companies were and are founded by immigrants. You can run that math yourself. But is Microsoft’s point that there is a worker gap reasonable? It is commonly argued that the U.S. has a surplus of STEM graduates that are citizens, and that to therefore import talent from abroad harms our local populace. The idea has some merit, but does conflate the ownership of a degree with a certain tier of competence.

One large technology company, I was once told by one of its employees, hires every single applicant that passes its standards testing and interview process. They want all the top-tier talent they can get, and nothing less. So, the problem becomes that, implicitly, our ability to turn out STEM graduates here doesn’t mean that our kids are qualified for the positions that are open. After all, why would companies go through such work and expense to hire foreign workers if they could hire at home?

Also, the idyll that we produce far more computer science graduates, say, than jobs is a bit of a myth. According TownHall, a Bureau of Labor Statistics study indicated that “the economy creates 3 jobs requiring a B.S. in computer science for every one college student graduating with a B.S. in computer science.” So, the idea of importing the best from abroad to augment our home-grown labor force doesn’t appear to be too batty.

That said, we should be sympathetic to those with STEM degrees who are out of work. That empathy, however, should not decide the larger issue.

Finally, speaking more broadly, I view technological progress as an inherent good for human society. That bias colors how I view this issue specifically (though being the grandchild of immigrants isn’t a small part of my perspective, either). The idea that we are keeping away from our shores brilliant minds who want to work and build here is, to me, prima facie ridiculous.

What’s Next

The simple depressing fact is that not only does no one know, but the cynical take might be the accurate perspective in this case. There appears to be little political will to take up immigration reform in the House ahead of the 2014 elections and their potential primary battles on the right. The Senate bill remains moot in the House. And looming crises involving foreign policy and financing government currently engulf our national attention.

I was worried when high-skilled immigration lost its individual agency and was instead strapped to the larger reform push. It could have worked: Momentum in favor of high-skilled reform could have helped propel the comprehensive bill. But here we are, without progress on any immigration front.

And I don’t see that changing.

Top Image Credit: ttarasiuk