Google and Yahoo! finally have something they can agree on: Changing United States law to make it easier to hire foreign-born engineers.
The top executives of both companies are among the high-tech heavyweights behind a well-funded lobbying campaign to shift at least some of the attention in the immigration-reform debate from undocumented manual laborers to highly educated specialists for which there’s huge demand, but far too few visas.
Only 65,000 so-called H1-B visas are made available per year for foreign workers with bachelor’s degrees, plus 20,000 more for graduates with advanced degrees. That entire annual allotment for 2014 was snapped up in the first week of the application period in April, even faster than the 10 weeks it took last year.
This bottleneck comes at a time when there’s a shortage of home-grown engineers and other tech employees, and fears that U.S.-educated workers will take their skills back to their home countries instead of sticking around.
“People have been very focused on unauthorized or illegal immigration, even though the issue of skilled, specialized workers could have just as great of an impact,” says Madeline Zavodny, a professor of economics at Agnes Scott College who studies immigration.
Bipartisan calls for immigration reform have provided an opening for tech companies to change this. Mark Zuckerberg has piloted a new organization called FWD.us, backed by fellow tech giants Bill Gates, Eric Schmidt of Google, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo!, LinkedIn chairman Reid Hoffman, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom, Netflix head Reed Hastings, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, Groupon cofounder Andrew Mason, and others.
These leaders haven’t merely given their names to the efforts to reform the visa system; they’ve put their money where their mouths are, increasing spending on lobbying and pushing to dramatically expand the number of temporary visas and green cards.
So far, the strategy seems to be working. An amendment to the Senate immigration bill, passed by the Judiciary Committee in May and headed for the Senate floor, would raise the number of H1-B visas from 65,000 to 110,000, with the prospect of increasing it again later to 180,000.
The move was largely overshadowed by a controversy over an unrelated amendment, eventually withdrawn, which would have made same-sex spouses eligible for citizenship in the same way heterosexual spouses are today. But it drew the ire of labor unions, which oppose the H-1B proposal as what they call an “unambiguous attack” on American tech workers.
The unions say the change would allow technology companies to hire H-1B visa holders without first offering the jobs to Americans, and to replace their American employers with lower-paid foreign ones.
“If the hard work of America’s tech workers is ever to pay off, we need to craft policy that benefits the people who actually write code, rather than just rewarding industry honchos who write checks to politicians,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in response to the amendment.
Current law limits U.S. companies to hiring educated foreign workers only for occupations requiring specialized skills and knowledge, only if other employees would not be affected, and only if they’re paid the prevailing wage.
But the technology industry says educated immigrants don’t take jobs from Americans; they create them. Every 100 H-1B workers hired generate an additional 183 jobs for Americans, according to an analysis by the American Enterprise Institute.
Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, they say, and those companies employ 10 million people worldwide and boast combined revenues of $4.2 trillion.
“Today, we may have turned away the next Albert Einstein or Sergey Brin,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also supports increasing the number of H-1B visas, told the Council on Foreign Relations.
As the debate drags on, Zavodny says, foreign workers may start giving up.
“People won’t come in the first place to go to U.S. universities or apply for U.S. jobs because they know it’s going to be so hard,” she says.
Visa uncertainties have already caused problems attracting and keeping top engineers from abroad, researchers from Duke, MIT, and Stanford found. “The U.S. visa landscape is greatly limiting the country’s capacity to retain exceptional individuals,” the researchers wrote.
Some of the same authors, in a separate paper, said the situation could result in a “reverse brain drain” from the U.S. to the educated workers’ native countries—most prominently, India and China.
The Council of Graduate Schools reports that the number of international applicants to U.S. graduate schools rose nine percent last year, and engineering applicants by 12 percent. But that’s a slower rate than just a few years ago. And a Facebook survey of 1,224 foreign students by Stanford’s Pratt School of Engineering and others found that increasing numbers, especially of Indian and Chinese nationals, planned to leave the U.S. rather than make their careers here.
The huge demand for visas has one silver lining, says Valodny.
“It means the economy is turning around and employers are looking for workers.”