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Opinion | The Podium

Immigration reforms are key to winning the global race for talent

US immigration policy has proven inadequate to address the needs of companies competing in a globalized, 21st century economy. There have been numerous failed efforts by both congressional Democrats and Republicans to address the shared goal of reversing the international “brain drain.” This inaction has sent a message to tens of thousands of highly-skilled foreign workers, graduates and entrepreneurs that the United States is closed for business. However, a path forward for such immigration reform has begun to unfold in recent weeks.

Following November’s national elections, President Obama and congressional leaders have stated that tackling immigration reform in a more comprehensive manner will be a priority in new Congress. The likelihood of a broader-based immigration overhaul presents an ideal opportunity to advance issues important to our economic competitiveness.

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The Greater Boston Chamber has recently launched “Business for Skilled Worker Immigration,” a coalition of 25 leading Chambers of Commerce from across the country, working together to advance skilled worker immigration reform as a means of driving job creation, innovation, and overall economic growth. Following up on the recommendations of the Chamber’s Global Talent Index last year, we believe the time is right for immigration reform that will improve employers’ ability to access a deeper talent pool and create pathways for more entrepreneurs to launch businesses in this country.

The coalition will urge Congress to include three specific proposals, as part of broader-based immigration reform expected in the new congressional session:

1. Skilled Worker Visas — Increase the availability of temporary, skilled worker (H-1B) visas. The annual H-1B visa quota has proven insufficient to meet the demands of the US labor market. This shortage has led companies to leave key positions unfilled or to hire staff to perform such work in overseas locations. H-1B visas are of particular importance to Massachusetts’ economy, given its concentration of health care and life science, technology, and financial institutions.

2. STEM Graduate Green Cards – Create new, permanent resident visas (green cards) for foreign students who graduate from a US university with an advanced degree in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The United States continues to experience a brain drain among such highly educated and highly sought-after graduates due to a lack of available employment-based visas. The impact to our talent pool is significant, considering that one-third of PhD recipients and one-quarter of master’s degree recipients in science and engineering in the United States are foreign born. Unless new visas are made available, many of these graduates – including thousands who are attending Massachusetts universities — will be forced to take their extensive training and skills back home to compete against us.

3. Entrepreneur Visas – Create new startup visas for immigrant entrepreneurs who launch businesses in the United States and meet certain employment and financing goals. US immigration law does not currently provide an entrepreneur visa. This glaring policy gap is leading Massachusetts and the United States to cede critical startup activity to our economic competitors overseas, many of whom have rushed to adopt new laws to attract foreign entrepreneurs.

Brain power is Massachusetts’ calling card and our competitive edge in a fiercely competitive global marketplace. It’s what drives so many leading companies and groundbreaking startups to call our state home. This talent pool is the result of decades spent educating and training an outstanding homegrown workforce. It also the result of our ability to attract some of the brightest and most innovative minds from across the globe to live, learn and work here. Yet, outdated and restrictive federal immigration policies are jeopardizing this critical inflow of international talent.

America’s competitors are actively and aggressively revising their immigration policies to welcome the world’s best and brightest to their shores. We must do likewise. Enactment of these skilled worker immigration reforms in the next Congress will help to secure Massachusetts’ global economic competitiveness by ensuring continued access to the best domestic and international talent the world has to offer.

Paul Guzzi is president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
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