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Past the rhetoric: The immigration and innovation policies we deserve

Our broken and outdated immigration system is why we’re increasingly losing the global race for tech talent.

FWD.us

America’s greatest competitive advantage has long been a culture that welcomes immigrants and an entrepreneurial self-selection process that brings the best and the brightest from around the world to our country. Unfortunately, we have a system of immigration laws that no longer reflects these core values.

At FWD.us, we believe in unlocking human potential by expanding opportunities so everyone can achieve the American Dream. That’s why we continue to fight for an immigration system that drives economic growth, creates a framework of immigration laws that reflect society's shared values, and builds a strong American middle class.

Businesses owned by immigrants employ one in 10 American workers, and in 2011, they generated $775 billion in revenue.

A study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that businesses owned by immigrants employ one in 10 American workers, and in 2011, they generated $775 billion in revenue. Immigrants have also founded 51 percent of U.S. billion-dollar startups, and among these companies, those immigrant founders have created on average 760 jobs per company in the U.S. Perhaps most impressive of all, immigrants have continually managed to build successful companies and create American jobs despite the costly obstacles of America’s broken immigration system.

To be clear, though, our broken and outdated immigration system is why we’re increasingly losing the global race for talent. Entrepreneurs -- many educated here in the U.S. -- are already looking to start their companies in other countries with more modern immigration policies. Last month, close to 200,000 high-skilled foreign workers found out they won’t get a visa this year; it’s a stark reminder of the terrible costs of inaction.

We need an immigration system that harnesses our legacy as a welcoming place for immigrants. And here’s what we believe that would look like:

Let’s begin as many immigrants begin in America -- at school. We have the best universities in the world, yet we do not place a high-enough value on retaining the talented foreign-born students that we educate at our universities, often forcing them to return home, or find jobs elsewhere after graduating. Studies have repeatedly shown that every foreign-born student who graduates from a U.S. university with an advanced degree and stays to work in STEM creates 2.62 jobs for American workers.

Let’s staple a green card to the diplomas of those graduating with advanced graduate degrees, particularly those in high-demand fields like science, technology, engineering, and math. Between 2002 and 2012, just 2 percent of graduate degrees earned by U.S. citizens and green-card holders were in STEM, compared to 23 percent of graduate degrees earned by foreign students in U.S. universities. Foreign-born STEM degree holders are critical because occupations within the STEM industry will see the fastest growth of any industry in the next decade.

Immigrants founded 51 percent of U.S. billion-dollar startups, and have created on average 760 jobs per company in the U.S.


Next, retaining the best and the brightest foreign students means expanding initiatives like the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows students to stay and work in the U.S. for a short period of time after graduating. We are encouraged by the Obama administration’s recent actions to make this program more inclusive and effective. We want talented entrepreneurs to stay in the U.S. and create high-paying jobs for U.S. workers. We should harness the talents of these entrepreneurs to benefit our economy and our communities, rather than pushing them to other countries to compete against us. This is common-sense economics -- it should be common-sense policy and politics.

Additionally, we need a startup visa. Home Depot, Apple, AT&T, Instagram, Boeing - all of these companies were started by immigrants or by the children of immigrants. Yet today, our country has no clear pathway for allowing foreign-born entrepreneurs to start a business and hire native-born Americans in the U.S. Sometimes it’s possible; sometimes it’s not, but it’s almost always incredibly difficult. If a foreign-born entrepreneur has a viable business model that can attract capital and create American jobs, we should have a visa to welcome them.

For many highly-skilled foreign born workers, last month was their best chance to work in the U.S. Every year on April 1, the H-1B visa filing window opens, and companies -- including startups, small businesses, and tech and manufacturing firms -- apply to bring highly skilled individuals here to create American jobs and grow their businesses. This year and the last several years, the entire allotment, 85,000 visas -- a number far too low to accommodate today’s economic need -- was exhausted within one week, denying roughly two-thirds of these applications.

Perhaps most impressive of all, immigrants have continually managed to build successful companies and create American jobs despite the costly obstacles of America’s broken immigration system.


The H-1B program has been in the news recently -- with high-profile stories about Americans losing their jobs, and Donald Trump attacking the visa. Simply put: It’s a false choice to say we can't protect American workers and have a growing high skilled immigration system -- we can and must do both. If Congress truly cared about protecting American workers and improving our economy, it would both reform and expand the H-1B program.

A nationwide study of 219 cities found that H-1B-driven increases in STEM workers were associated with wage increases of 7 percent to 8 percent for college-educated native-born workers, while non-college-educated native-born workers saw a wage increase of 3 percent to 4 percent. While another study found that for every 100 H-1B workers, an additional 183 jobs among U.S. native-born workers are created. H-1Bs were designed for the best and brightest to come to the U.S. from around the world and complement our workforce.

In areas with large numbers of H-1Bs, studies show not only increased wages, but also significant job creation and low unemployment. From 1990 to 2010, 10 percent to 25 percent of the total combined productivity growth across 219 American cities was fueled by H-1B workers in the STEM professions. Furthermore, workers who received H-1B visas from 2010-2013 will create more than 700,000 jobs for U.S.-born workers by 2020. Studies also show this pattern of job growth is echoed in areas not typically thought of as centers for high-tech industry.

To be clear, because Congress has failed to update the program in two decades, there are problems with the visa that must be addressed. FWD.us fought tirelessly to pass S.744, a common-sense immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June of 2013 with strong bipartisan support. In addition to expanding avenues for high-skilled immigration, this bill would have curtailed problems that come from a two-decades old policy. These reforms will protect American workers while making it easier to bring in the best and the brightest foreign workers to complement and grow the American workforce.

These provisions from 2013 included requiring that, by 2017, no company would be permitted to have more than 50 percent of its U.S.-based workforce on an H-1B. But Congress didn’t act -- instead, it blocked reform. It would have deeply restricted the ability of companies with substantial numbers of H-1B employees to place these employees off-site with a third party, a critical step to prevent some of the recent problematic uses. Moreover, after nearly two decades since substantial reform, it would have updated the wage provisions around the program. These provisions, along with over a dozen others, are important to ensure this critical visa will be used as intended.

If Congress truly cared about protecting American workers and improving our economy, it would both reform and expand the H-1B program.


The opponents of immigration reform -- people who want to eliminate immigration, round up millions of undocumented immigrants or radically restrict companies abilities to compete in a global economy -- will point at these problems and blame immigrants, blame immigration, and blame the H-1B program. However, the real blame is on some members of Congress for blocking these very reforms in 2013, and failing to put forth a common -- sense framework since.

Lastly, for those who seek to make the U.S. their permanent home, many face a multi-year or even multi-decade green-card backlog, because we have arbitrary per-country caps that discriminate against large countries, resulting in hundreds of thousands of immigrants from India, China, the Philippines and elsewhere stuck in an awful backlog without rights or mobility. Imagine spending a decade waiting for a green card -- unable to take a raise or promotion for fear of having any changes delay your green-card status. The idea that we would tell otherwise eligible individuals that they qualify for a green card today, but that they will not actually receive one until the fifth decade of the 21st century is flat-out wrong.

That America has always been a nation of immigrants is an incredible source of its strength -- but we no longer have a system of immigration laws that work in today’s global economy. Congress has delayed and blocked reforms for too long. It’s time to fix our broken immigration system and have a high-skilled immigration system that grows the economy, spurs innovation and rebuilds the American Dream for a strong middle class in the 21st century.

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Todd Schulte is the president of FWD.us, where he works to pass common-sense immigration reform and to help make the American Dream more achievable in the 21st century. He previously served as chief of staff at Priorities USA, the super PAC committed to re-electing President Obama. Reach him @TheToddSchulte.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.