AP file PhotoTapping brains: The U.S. needs comprehensive immigration reform that provides the business community with top talent in science and technology through H-1B visas and other immigration opportunities.

Economy needs immigration reform

Congress is busy working on an immigration overhaul that, if passed, would usher in the most dramatic changes to the nation’s immigration system in more than two decades. While much of the focus and attention is on issues of border security, enforcement and pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the legislative overhaul now in progress presents an opportunity to advance issues important to the business community.

One key issue facing businesses in the Bay Area, and across the nation, is the inability to access top international talent, particularly in the areas of science and technology. In fact, demand for the 85,000 H-1B visas available for the upcoming year outpaced supply in the first week. As a result, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will run a random lottery to award this year’s allocation. According to the Brookings Institute, employer requests have exceeded demand every year except 2001 to 2003, when the annual cap was temporarily raised. Clearly, we need to increase the availability of temporary, skilled foreign worker visas to meet current market demand.

Opportunities also exist to improve visa access for foreign job creators. Each year, thousands of foreign students come to our country for advanced degrees from our world-class academic institutions. Today, one out of every three Ph.D. recipients and one out of every four master’s degree recipients in science and engineering in the U.S. are foreign born. Yet, when these talented individuals graduate, they must return to their home countries because employment-based visas are not available.

Creating a new, permanent resident visa or green card for foreign graduates and other entrepreneurs who launch businesses in our country will surely have a positive impact on employment and the economy. According to the Partnership for a New American Economy, every foreign student who earns an advanced degree from a U.S. university and stays to work in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) occupations creates an average of 2.62 jobs for American workers. Immigrant-launched businesses also employ one out of every 10 people working for private companies. In today’s global economy, we must do more to compete for these jobs, or they will be created outside our borders.

Legislation introduced this week in the U.S. Senate addresses these issues and charts a new course forward for American immigration reform. Increasing the availability of visas for highly skilled workers, graduates and entrepreneurs is a key priority in the chamber’s 2013 advocacy agenda. We join with employers across the nation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and local chambers from across the country in urging Congress to act so that our nation’s immigration system better meets the needs of American employers and the 21st century global economy.

The chamber invites you to join us in the March for Innovation and Take Action on immigration reform.

Bob Linscheid is president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

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