The coming debate over immigration reform promises to be thorny, but one change should be simple: increasing the number of H-1B visas available for high-skilled foreign workers. Business groups around the country, including the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, are right to press lawmakers to lift the restrictive yearly cap on H-1B visas as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system.
For Boston’s innovative firms to compete with companies abroad, they need to recruit the best talent available. That’s difficult to do when US-born workers in skilled sectors are being snapped up quickly — the unemployment rate for Americans with advanced science, technology, engineering, and math degrees is less than 4 percent — and when existing law doesn’t let foreign workers fill the demand. Just 65,000 H-1B visas are made available each year. In 2012, all were handed out within three months.
Boston particularly stands to benefit from lifting that cap. The metro area, the 10th most populous in the country, has been the source of the seventh-most H-1B visa requests, according to the Brookings Institution. Boston’s workforce is among the most highly skilled; the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s Global Talent Index, which measures workers’ skills by college degrees, patents produced, and academic performance, puts Boston workers at number one, above London and Beijing. Some of that high ranking is surely because of foreign students who are here temporarily; more visas would mean that the talent that comes for school would stay to work.
Immigration skeptics worry that an influx of foreign workers would keep Americans out of jobs and hold down wages. But these visas are reserved only for immigrants paid comparatively high salaries for very specific types of jobs. Looking abroad for hard-to-fill technical jobs can often increase opportunities for US workers; new products and services emerge, with a domestic workforce needed to sustain them. Bill Gates has said that for every H-1B hire, another four employees are hired to work alongside them.
Understanding the benefits of hiring the world’s most talented workers and attracting potential entrepreneurs, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and other countries have already taken steps to loosen immigration restrictions for high-skilled recruits. If Congress wants to keep the United States’s reputation as the incubator for forward-looking companies, it could begin by removing the cap on H-1B visas immediately.