As the two parties and the Obama Administration continue to duke it out on the specifics of reform, one area of consensus seems to be on skilled immigration. As Kevin Sullivan reports in the Washington Post today, the U.S. is losing some talented people working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (aka STEM fields). After these immigrants have been trained in U.S. universities, they often cannot overcome the byzantine employment visa maze to stay here permanently and follow through with their research and innovations. No one from either party has actually spoken out against making high tech, high skilled immigration easier. The problem though for high tech companies who have for years begged the government for easier pathways to citizenship for foreign workers is the way the immigration debate is being framed today, which is about courting the Latino community rather than about kick-starting economic development. More generous employment visa options for STEM fields does not help with the GOP's battered image with Latinos, nor would it be perceived by Latinos who supported President Obama as a policy change that addresses their core concerns of the vulnerable undocumented population.
There is talk of an entrepreneurial visa which I believe is the wrong way to go given the difficulty of defining "entrepreneur" (someone anyone with a great idea?). There are already variants of that visa in the form of the investors visa, where one can literally invest 1 million dollars in a U.S. business, hire a number of U.S. workers, and buy a Green Card. That program has been under-used given the high investment thresh hold. There is also the bizarre diversity visa lottery that is literally a lottery (except you are disqualified from entry if you happen to live in the top immigration sending countries). But the diversity visa lottery has no educational requirement beyond high school or an occupation that requires high school. The folks profiled in the Washington Post article would qualify under neither of these plans. Genuine comprehensive immigration reform needs to rethink the large interests that immigration policy is to serve. As I have argued, the orgins of the diversity visa lottery show that it was actually not much about diversity and mostly about pork barrel politics. Portions of the immigration code have been ad hoc and patched together with little thought to the larger overarching goals of the policy. So in the end, talented and highly educated immigrants are hostage to political debates and electoral politics not even about them. The only shot at more visas and a streamlined process for high tech workers is if it is bundled into a comprehensive immigration reform bill.