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The Podium

The benefits of the H-1B visa

Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Charles Schumer have been working on immigration reform, which includes lifting the cap on H-1B visas. AP file photo/J. Scott Applewhite.

Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Charles Schumer have been working on immigration reform, which includes lifting the cap on H-1B visas. AP file photo/J. Scott Applewhite.

Despite deep divisions in Washington, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are making progress on an issue of enormous importance to the American economy — finding a way to expand the H-1B visa program, which lets the best researchers, engineers, professors, and mathematicians from around the world work and reside legally in the United States.

This is encouraging and follows years of pleading by business leaders from nearly every sector who have been stymied in efforts to hire top talent from abroad.

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The need in the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is well-established. For example, the United States needs 120,000 new computer engineers annually. Our universities produce only one-third of that number.

Year after year, demand for men and women with these skills has outpaced domestic supply. Other countries, meanwhile, are graduating more and more of these students.

Some critics of expanding the H-1B program have worried embracing highly skilled foreign-born workers would limit opportunities for their US-born peers. This isn’t true.

For starters, unemployment among Americans with high-level STEM skills is half the national average. And contrary to the critics’ fears, letting companies fill key technology positions with foreign-born workers actually increases the job security of US-born workers by making businesses stronger and more competitive.

Employing qualified workers boosts output. And there is a multiplier effect. Studies indicate that states with greater numbers of workers in the H-1B program have higher overall employment rate. In fact, hiring 100 H-1B workers resulted in an additional 183 jobs for native US workers, according to a study by economist Madeline Zavodny. Every immigrant in the STEM fields with an advanced degree from a US university creates 2.62 jobs for US citizens.

There’s another problem with failing to hire talented foreign-born workers.

Those very same workers don’t mothball their skills upon being declined entry into the United States. Rather, they put them to work on behalf of our competitors. The situation is especially exasperating in education centers like Boston, where innovative technology firms, health care organizations and investment managers cannot keep bright young minds who have been educated here from being sent back overseas.

For a foreign-born graduate with special talent, a degree should be the ticket to employment in the United States, not a return ticket home.

“There are brilliant students from all over the world sitting in classrooms at our top universities,” President Obama said in a Jan. 29 speech introducing his plan. “We’re giving them all the skills they need to figure that out. But then we’re going to turn around and tell them to start that business and create those jobs in China or India or Mexico. … That’s not how you grow new industries in America.”

Meanwhile, our competitors haven’t been waiting for US lawmakers to work this out.

Countries from the United Kingdom to Australia already recognize the intensity of this global contest for talent and are in the process of lifting restrictions on foreign-born workers.

The ability to scour the globe for experienced, knowledgeable and well-trained workers — and to put them to work quickly on American soil — would at least allow the United States to keep pace. And increasing the number of H-1B visas would help lift the US economy as a whole — helping spur new growth in many regional markets.

The exact path to addressing this problem is not clear, but Democrats and Republicans aren’t far apart. Separate proposals by President Obama and a bipartisan group of US senators would lift the limit to 115,000 visas annually. The yearly cap would be raised further, up to 300,000, should the number of qualified candidates continue to exceed the number of visas.

Bills currently under discussion would also eliminate another cap of 20,000 visas for foreigners who earn graduate degrees from US universities and, for the first time, allow spouses of H-1B recipients to get jobs. This progress is good news for my industry, global financial services, and for many other industries.

President Obama and the Senate immigration working groups are to be commended. Hopefully, the eventual outcome of their efforts will be comprehensive immigration reform that includes a stronger, more flexible H-1B program. Improving the visa process will have outsized benefits for workers, employers and the US economy.

John Hailer, president and chief executive officer of Natixis Global Asset Manaement — The Americas and Asia, is chairman of the New England Council.
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