A few policy changes would make it easier for immigrants to come to the U.S. and create jobs and growth.
Despite the difficulty in obtaining visas, green cards, work permits, and even citizenship in the United States, America remains the first-choice destination for the overwhelming majority of tech entrepreneurs and highly skilled science and technology workers.
But there are some simple policy fixes that would make it easier for talented immigrants to come to the U.S., launch businesses, and unleash massive economic benefits.
For starters, we should reform the green card program. At present, there are only about 140,000 green cards, which allow for work-related permanent residency, available each year. (Australia, with a much smaller population, has a similarly sized quota.)
The traditional path to a green card and the typical visa held by tech workers coming to the U.S. is the H-1B visa. Indian and Chinese nationals make up the vast majority of H-1B visa holders, but no single nationality can represent more than 7% of the total number of employment-based green cards issued. The 7% limitation has resulted in a massive and growing backlog of educated immigrants, trapped in their current jobs and waiting in limbo with no guarantee of citizenship. Meanwhile, their spouses are not permitted to work in this country. For many Indian and Chinese petitioners, the wait can stretch a decade or more. This means some of the most highly educated, motivated people cannot commit to this country and instead spend some of their most productive years essentially treading water.
Four simple steps would alleviate these problems.
Abolish the 7% national quotas.
Allow spouses of H1-B holders to work while in the U.S.
Raise the total quota for employment-based visa holders awarded permanent residency.
Allow H-1B holders to change jobs without losing their visa status and being forced to leave the country immediately--a condition that enforces lower salaries for H-1B holders and encourages skilled immigrant arbitrage and tech "body shop" abuses.
We also need to make it easier for would-be entrepreneurs--those who don't want to start by working for someone else. In our book, The Immigration Exodus, we documented a number of cases where smart immigrants with viable technology businesses were rebuffed by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service. (Even more examples can be found at www.immigrantexodus.com.) This is a constant refrain we hear at technology events around the world.
The good news is that the U.S. Congress has gradually introduced better bills for a so-called start-up visa. This would allow promising entrepreneurs to enter and stay in the U.S., provided their companies are able to achieve minimum funding and employee levels within a reasonable timeline. This visa would apply to current H1-B holders who may be trapped in their present gigs but have great ideas for new companies. With a start-up visa, these immigrant dreamers could raise funds and launch a company without losing the right to work in the U.S.
To date, the only real policy improvements we have seen have come from executive orders. This summer, President Barack Obama decreed that spouses of H1-B holders would be allowed to work in the U.S. But there has been precious little concrete legislative action to fix broken policies and to ensure that we set out the welcome mat for one of our most precious resources: talented, ambitious people.
VIVEK WADHWA is Vice President of Academics and Innovation, Singularity University; Fellow, Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research, Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization and Exec in Residence, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University; and Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Halle Institute of Global Learning, Emory University.