The U.S. can’t afford to lose skilled immigrants

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A woman holds a cluster of U.S. flags during a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony in Oakland, California August 13, 2013. A total of 1,225 new citizens representing 96 countries took the oath. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

A wave of layoffs at U.S. technology companies has forced scores of skilled immigrants on temporary visas to find new jobs within 60 days or leave the country. Their predicament underscores how a flawed system is jeopardizing America’s ability to attract and retain the foreign-born talent it needs.

The tech industry has long relied on skilled foreign workers to fill IT and engineering jobs. The majority are employed through the H-1B visa program, which brings 85,000 workers to the US each year. The visas last a maximum of six years, during which time workers can apply for legal permanent residence, if sponsored by their employer. Of the estimated 580,000 current H-1B holders, more than half have had an employer petition for them to get a green card. Due to the system’s arbitrariness and inefficiency, however, the process for actually obtaining one lasts years; many immigrants from India – which contributes the largest share of applicants – can expect to wait for decades.

This backlog leaves H-1B holders vulnerable to corporate downsizing – as tens of thousands have recently learned the hard way, including those at Twitter and Meta Platforms. Under rules put in place during President Barack Obama’s administration, workers who lose their jobs have 60 days to find a new employer to sponsor them or they will have their visas canceled. At Meta and Twitter alone, at least 350 laid-off visa holders are now racing to secure new jobs before the grace period expires. Even those who do find work may have to relocate their families, sell their homes or settle for less desirable work just to stay in the country.

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Forcing skilled immigrants to endure such upheaval is not only cruel but self-defeating. Among America’s greatest strengths is its ability to lure and assimilate such talent, thereby boosting growth, entrepreneurship and innovation. H-1B workers also create opportunities for US citizens, by enabling companies to invest in domestic operations instead of sending jobs overseas. Yet rather than expanding the pipeline for skilled foreign workers, the U.S.’s onerous policies are increasingly pushing them away, with pro-immigration countries like Canada and Australia becoming more attractive destinations for global talent. The number of US noncitizen residents moving to Canada annually has increased 128% from 2017 to 2019, due partly to a program there that expedites employment visas and allows some skilled workers to obtain permanent residence within six months.

The U.S. should take notice. As a start, President Joe Biden should extend the 60-day grace period for unemployed H-1B visa holders to six months, giving them a fair opportunity to find new jobs, and allow their spouses to continue to work legally in the meantime. Those who’ve applied for green cards should also maintain their place in the queue, rather than having to convince a new employer to sponsor them.

Over the long term, broader reform is required to bring in more skilled workers. Congress should increase the overall number of employment-based green cards issued each year and eliminate per-country caps, as a bipartisan bill in the House aims to do. Even better would be to prioritize immigrants with high-value skills rather than those with family ties and establish a points-based system, similar to Canada’s, that gives workers with specific abilities and professional experiences a fast track to permanent legal residence.

For the moment, such reform appears unlikely, with Republicans focused on securing the southern border and Democrats prioritizing legislation to protect undocumented immigrants. Yet by making the US more welcoming to talent from around the world, a skills-based system would help employers fill critical roles, spark innovation, boost US competitiveness and benefit the economy as a whole. That’s a cause both parties should embrace.

(This editorial appeared on Bloomberg Opinion)

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