H-1B visa reform: Issa bill worth considering

The H-1B visa program needs reform. The H-1B visa program is essential to the health of our economy. These two ideas are not contradictory.

To those who believe the H-1B program has failed as an immigration policy, I would urge you to inform yourself with data and not limit yourself to anecdotes. For sure, there is rampant abuse that needs to be curbed, but the program overwhelmingly works.

Not so long ago, President Donald Trump rambled through the following statement: “I’m changing. I’m changing. We need highly skilled people in this country, and if we can’t do it, we’ll get them in. But, and we do need in Silicon Valley, we absolutely have to have. So, we do need highly skilled, and one of the biggest problems we have is people go to the best colleges. They’ll go to Harvard, they’ll go to Stanford, they’ll go to Wharton, as soon as they’re finished they’ll get shoved out. They want to stay in this country. They want to stay here desperately, they’re not able to stay here.”

Yet, the Trump administration is actively paving pathways for these same students to leave America.

The Department of Homeland Security, presumably under Trump’s directive, is currently considering a plan to terminate H-1B visa extensions.

The H-1B visa is typically issued for three to six years. However, H-1B visa-holders who have started their green card application process can, in many cases, renew or extend their H-1B visa status indefinitely. The termination of the H-1B visa extension could affect thousands — estimates range from 100,000 to 800,000 — of skilled, foreign-born innovators and developers who would find it difficult to stay in the country while they wait for their green cards to be processed.

Terminating the renewal of H-1B visas could seriously trap H-1B visa holders, especially those who have advanced STEM degrees, in a cumbersome process and deter them from applying the skills they learned in our colleges, gleaned from our professors, honed from our body of research, in jobs that could dynamically reshape our world.

If these graduate students leave America, they take that knowledge with them.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data as of Nov. 15, 2017, indicates that in the last 10 years, 3,469,097 H-1B petitions were received, out of which 2,735,644 petitions were approved. Not surprisingly, India was the leading beneficiary country with 2,237,478 petitions filed in the same 10-year span; China was the second with 301,426 petitions.

In fact, Indian businessman Ananda Mahindra, head of the Indian conglomerate Mahindra Group that was named by Fortune magazine to be one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders, declared that if Indians who were trained and educated in America were to be deported, it could only help India. Directly addressing the potential deportees, Mahindra remarked, “You’re coming back in time to help India rise …”

Trump’s short-sighted H-1B reform will only Make India Great Again.

A few months ago, I interviewed Dilawar Syed, president of Freshworks, at the “I Am An Immigrant” technology forum organized at the Laundry Cafe in the Mission. Syed asserted emphatically that the demand for developers is no myth, no fake story. “We haven’t, as a country, invested in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math]. And that takes a generation … to close that skill gap.”

Syed believes that for departments and disciplines, such as sales and marketing, we should be going to big universities in places like Ohio, Tennessee and Florida to hire talent to fill vacancies. But not in the case of STEM subjects, where American shortage is legion.

As Rodney C. Adkins, senior vice president at IBM, stated in an essay written for Forbes magazine, “When I graduated from college, about 40% of the world’s scientists and engineers resided in the U.S. Today that number has shrunk to about 15%.”

Adkins graduated in 1983.

When it comes to focuses like technology development, scientific research and some form of combinatorial innovation, the shortage is both in our classrooms and in our eligible candidate base.

Congressman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who just announced he will not be running for re-election in 2018, introduced legislation with bipartisan support to stop, what he calls, “the outsourcing of American jobs and to reform the nation’s high-skilled immigration program.”

H.R. 170, the “Protect and Grow American Jobs Act,” was passed by the House Judiciary committee in November and is pending House and Senate approval before making it to the White House for the president’s pen in order to be signed into law. The bill would raise the salary threshold from the currently $60,000 per year to $90,000 per year and eliminate the Master’s or higher degree exemption. The bill would prohibit the replacement of American workers by H-1B workers by H-1B dependent companies — companies with 20 percent or more of their workforce holding H-1B visas. The bill would also add an inflation adjustment to the salary requirement every third fiscal year. It is unclear if the bill will make its way through Congress before Issa’s retirement.

The last H-1B amendment in 1998 did not index wage thresholds. So, these are timely, strategic moves aimed at curbing abuse, as well as to keep the skilled and knowledgeable within our shores.

As Trump once declared, we need these highly educated people to stay in our country and contribute in tacit and concrete ways.

An American Enterprise Institute study by Madeline Zavodny, professor of economics at Agnes College, revealed that every 100 foreign-born workers with advanced degrees from the United States, who then are employed in a STEM field, create about 262 additional jobs for American-born workers. That means that for every foreign graduate student we make room for in the United States, we are creating opportunity for 2.62 Americans.

That is the essence of the H-1B visa program: create jobs by giving jobs.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

Jaya Padmanabhan
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Jaya Padmanabhan

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