House Judiciary Committee holds hearing on high skilled immigration

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Publication date: 
15 March 2013

The House Committee on the Judiciary held a March 5 hearing entitled “Enhancing American Competitiveness through Skilled Immigration.”  The goal of the hearing was to investigate whether US policy blocks the path towards citizenship for immigrants with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) began the hearing by expressing his interest in promoting entrepreneurial success as it contributes to US economic competitiveness.  He believes that the US must encourage American students to study STEM fields and would like those students to have fair access to institutions of higher education, particularly in cases where American students need financial aid but are competing in the admissions process against foreign students who do not.  He was particularly interested in exploring whether safeguards on H-1B visas, which were put in place to protect American workers, were working as they should.  He stated that high skilled immigration policy should ensure economic growth, attract the best and brightest students, and nurture the careers of American students who study STEM fields. 

Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) highlighted a 2005 report by the National Academies which concluded that US leadership in science and technology is eroding.  She explained that the US has a unique ability to innovate and design new ideas and technology.  She cited that 40 percent of global research and development spending is produced by the US and that 35 percent of science and engineering articles published are done so by the US.  She expressed concern that the diminishing leadership in science and technology will have economic consequences since work done by scientists and engineers creates jobs for the other 96 percent of the population. 

Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) posed many questions in his opening remarks including whether the US should select only 12 percent of immigrants on the basis of education and skill.  “Does this make sense given the international economic competition that America faces? … Does this make sense given that Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada each year select over 60% of immigrants on the basis of skills and education?“  He was interested in aspects of high-skilled immigration policy including: possible improvements to temporary visa programs for skilled workers and entrepreneurs, reducing backlogs for some employment-based green cards, and helping the US retain more foreign graduates from American universities. 

Four witnesses testified.  Bruce Morrison, Chairman of Morrison Public Affairs Group testified on behalf of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE).  His testimony focused on issues surrounding the number of green cards available for skilled immigrants.  The challenge for reform of skilled immigration, he believes, is to avoid the trap of inconsistency between the stated intent of guest-worker programs, which is for those workers to work temporarily in the US, and the actual reality of these programs which is that the workers use H-1B visas as a means to become permanent residents.  He noted that this temporary status does not provide security or the autonomy of a green card leaving immigrants tied to particular employers.  Morrison offered suggestions to make direct access to green cards a convenient route for sponsoring employers thus eliminating the need for immigrants to remain in “temporary status.”

Dean Garfield, President and CEO of Information Technology Industry Council reiterated that the “skilled immigration system is broken and does not serve our national interests” as he suggested that Congress address four basic components of the high skilled immigration system.  First, he stated that any reform should address the thousands of skilled job openings and accelerate job creation for new businesses since these job openings represent lost economic growth and are drivers of the ecosystem for entrepreneurial innovation.  Next, Morrison supported skilled immigration reform that would supplement the US workforce.  He stated that the US should “protect both the American worker and the American economy by having H-1B visa availability rise and fall with market demand.”  This was proposed in recent legislation, S. 169 the I-Squared Act.  Third, he suggested that high skilled immigration should maximize the work done in the US that would otherwise be shipped overseas.  Lastly, Morrison hoped that skilled immigration would allow for the investment of “effective education and training programs for future US innovators and entrepreneurs.” 

Deepak Kamra, General Partner of Canaan Partners provided a summary of the combination of the venture-backed startup economy and contributions from immigrant entrepreneurs.   Together both of these “are instrumental in maintaining our global economic leadership.”  Kamra stressed that “America is at risk for losing this coveted group of entrepreneurs to foreign countries” because “our legal immigration policies have essentially sent a message to these talented people that we do not want them here in the United States” and because of “the reality that we are no longer the only destination for high tech, high growth start-up companies.” 

Benjamin Johnson, Executive Director of the American Immigration Council, stated that “the role of immigrants as job creators, entrepreneurs, and innovators, is not an isolated enterprise.  It is an integral component of systematic immigration reform.  Unfortunately, in the highly politicized immigration debate of the last 10 years, the nuanced and complex role immigration plays in American economic growth, business development, and global competitiveness has too often been reduced to a few buzz words and myths designed to minimize the importance of immigration reform in this area, or to pit native-born workers against their foreign-born colleagues.”  In his testimony, he reviewed research supporting a “revitalized immigration system,” addressed common misconceptions, and suggested policy changes that would help support the innovation economy. 

Members focused their questions on addressing details of the current immigration that provide barriers to high-skilled immigrants.  Goodlatte was interested in whether there was a way for employers to provide a trial period for immigrants before investing in the more permanent immigrant status.  Goodlatte was concerned that immigrant graduate students seeking employment following graduation needed to apply for H-1B visas because of a delay in the green card system and questioned the efficiency of that process. 

Lofgren emphasized that the current system is not competitive.  She highlighted the salary differences between STEM workers.  She asked witnesses to offer suggestions about ways to make STEM more accessible as a part of STEM immigration reform.

There was agreement on both sides of the aisle.  Lofgren noted that “we can’t tell from the testimony who is the majority witness (witness chosen to testify by the Republican Party) and who is the minority (witness chosen to testify by the Democratic Party) witness.”  Lofgren emphasized that both sides are in agreement as to the importance of this issue and that there is a need to “iron out the details.”