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On immigration reform, Obama must do more to lure—and keep—talent

A worker at a high-tech expo in China. US immigration reform needs to remove hurdles to bring in foreign talent.
AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan
A worker at a high-tech expo in China. US immigration reform needs to remove hurdles to bring in foreign talent.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Most of the early criticism of US President Barack Obama’s immigration proposal has centered on reinforcing border security before allowing more than 11 million undocumented workers to earn lawful citizenship. Less discussed but equally important is the lack of economic incentives in the proposal at a time when the US economy is at risk.

To compete effectively in today’s global economy, companies have to rapidly adjust to customer needs and market trends.  This requires dynamic changes in staffing and the ability to move teams of talent fluidly and rapidly to key locations for training, knowledge transfer, leadership and project delivery.

Absent a visa system that effectively allows for short-term and multi-year transfers of employees, companies will be disadvantaged.  Missing from the Obama administration proposal, for example, is the Senate proposal for an increase in specialty occupation (H-1B) visas that has been lauded by US technology firms. The price of a visa system that pays insufficient attention to business realities are many: Loss of key contracts, compromised project deliverables, and limited training and knowledge exchange.

The Obama proposal also misses a golden opportunity to bolster one of the key drivers of the US economy—experienced talent.  While the proposal includes an interesting proposal to “staple” green cards to advanced degree graduates of US-based science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (“STEM”) programs, it does not offer ease of entry to experienced executives or professionals with backgrounds in core business areas or with critical infrastructure or industry expertise of interest to a US employer. No new or refined categories for short-term transfers are included, although the commercial need to move a pool of experienced workers to staff high-value contracts is prevalent.  Also not included: merit-based classification for proven performers in the workplace.  And the proposal, in contrast to the Senate sponsored proposal, only raises family-based immigrant quotas, ignoring anything other than a temporary boost to employment-based quotas.

This reform could represent the first true overhaul of our employment-based immigration system since 1990.  If it does not include more innovative employment visa provisions, we will miss a rare opportunity to enhance our competitive standing through the foundational asset of any business—its people.  Absent such innovation, other countries with merit-based visa systems—like the evolving “points based system” in the United Kingdom—and new economies with aggressive investment—like China and India—will outpace the US in attracting top talent.

The Obama proposal includes a number of positive provisions.­  But for many companies, it falls short  in supporting US companies in the global competition for top talent.  If we are making common sense reforms, let’s make sure the law includes all the common sense we have to make the United States an unrivaled destination for the world’s most talented workers.

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