US presidential candidate Mitt Romney has promised to “raise visa caps for highly skilled foreign workers” if elected.
In a letter responding to the New York Tech Meetup community, Romney also promised to “offer permanent residence to foreign students graduating with advanced degrees in relevant fields.” The group had asked both Romney and Obama what they’d do for startup entrepreneurs if elected, and both campaigns responded with letters.
By mentioning visa caps, Romney inevitably refers to the much sought-after H-1B visas that Silicon Valley and many US industries rely on to hire sufficient quantities of highly skilled, foreign-born engineers. (44% of Silicon Valley startups have had at least one immigrant among their founders.) In 2012, the supply of 85,000 H-1Bs ran out in just two and a half months. New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg has called limits on H1-B visas “national suicide.”
Unlike Romney’s letter, Obama’s did not make specific promises related to future immigration reform. Instead, it touted his record, noting that “We have a start-up visa program that’s allowing foreign entrepreneurs to establish businesses in America and create American jobs.”
This is technically true: The administration has made foreign entrepreneurs eligible for EB-2 visas, which are usually reserved for foreign workers who already have a job offer in the US, an advanced degree or substantial experience, and exceptional abilities in a particular area.
The problem is that the Obama administration’s start-up visa program is a pale shadow of the immigration reform many US entrepreneurs have been pushing for. Known as the Startup Visa Act, it was first proposed in 2010. Romney’s proposals sound as if they are taken straight from the Startup Visa Act, which creates a new class of visas that are available to workers already in the country on H-1B visas, as well as graduates from US universities.
Despite bipartisan support, the Startup Visa Act has yet to gain enough support for it to be voted on by the US Congress.
The problem, as usual, is politics. As Vivek Wadhwa told Quartz:
The obstacles are political, Republicans and Democrats both agree on skilled immigration, but neither side wants to hand the other side a victory. The Democrats won’t agree on the skilled until the unskilled is resolved. The Republicans are very single-minded, we need the entrepreneurs, we need the engineers, we need the scientists, we’ll do what it takes to get them–but we’re not going to give in on the amnesty issue.
Romney’s readiness to welcome immigrants with desirable skills is arguably at odds with his past pronouncements on other forms of immigration, for example his reluctance to provide a path to citizenship for children who are raised in the US but remain illegal. So perhaps we can add selective immigration to the list of ways in which Romney is tacking toward the political center.