Following on from the November election there has been renewed talk about visa reform, and three parts of the discussion are relevant to our tech community here in Hawaii. Proposed actions include easing visa requirements for international graduates in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) fields, creating a new “Start-Up Visa” for entrepreneurs, and raising the quota for H-1B high-skilled workers, a category heavily used in the technology area.
It looks like the “Fiscal Cliff” budget negotiations will be the main focus of attention in Washington, D.C. through the end of the year, with Congress likely to take up immigration in early 2013. An early signal that some kind of movement came on November 30, with the Republican-led House of Representatives approving a new immigrant visa category f... graduates. There was a distinct political play embedded in the legislation, which would have ended the Diversity Lottery Program. This may have enticed some anti-immigration votes to join, but put off too many pro-immigration votes to make a workable proposal. The legislation was defeated in the Senate. Watch for a proposal that does not include a “poison pill” to see how much true support this idea has.
Defeat of the STEM bill notwithstanding, there does seem to be a growing consensus that the U.S. is facing a shortage of qualified workers in STEM related fields. An article in Human Resource Executive Magazine provides a good example of this view and outlines the efforts of the Microsoft Corporation to keep up with IT workforce development. The idea of special visas for STEM workers may be part of the overall movement towards immigration reform, as suggested by tech magnate Steve Case, incidentally a Hawaii native.
With the motivation towards STEM visas being essentially driven by business and an economic analysis indicating positive job creation ..., this is something that can find support from Republicans, who have lately been criticized for their vocal anti-immigration positions. The new proposals are aimed at giving some form of preferential visa status to graduates in these disciplines, including what has been described as “stapling a green card to their diplomas.” Reasonable observers will know immediately that getting lawful permanent residence in the United States is never going to be quite that easy, but there are reasons to pay attention to this new interest in getting visa reform done.
A perceived need for a short-term increase in STEM qualified workers, in combination with our own domestic efforts at workforce development, seems like a sound investment in much needed economic growth. This resonates here in Hawaii, where our own tech industries struggle to match skills and opportunities. As the economic argument for visa reform gains strength, with a focus on pushing the economy out of its long slump, a fresh view of visa reform may take hold.
Keeping STEM graduates in the U.S., expanding availability for high-skilled worker H-1B visas, and providing visas for tech-oriented immigrant entrepreneurs would give a boost to our own tech community as well. Critical mass in the tech sector has been somewhat elusive for Hawaii, and every effort that promotes skills and innovative ventures should be welcomed. The fact that we have bright young people who have studied here in Hawaii, even in some cases winning awards for technology Business Plans, but being unable to stay after they graduate and develop their careers here in Hawaii is not helping.
Still, the fact remains that there is a strong anti-immigration faction in the U.S. body politic and many politicians are unwilling to take a stand that would offend that group. A good cross-section of the positions in this debate can be found in an article in U.S. News and World Report, and you can see that there will not be any political unanimity on this type of visa. Even so, a smart guess is that something is coming, and that when the U.S. Congress gets around to the topic of immigration in the early part of 2013, we’ll see more for support visa reform, particularly in the tech sector.