Juliette Kayyem

End visa cap on experts

In immigration reform, one small step would have huge benefits

By Juliette Kayyem
February 28, 2011

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IT SEEMS counter to our times to think small. Health care reform. The Egyptian revolution. Lady Gaga’s entrance at the Grammys. We are living in a time when major acts are applauded (or derided) because they are so big. A thousand points of light and “think globally, act locally’’ seem quaint against developments of such epic proportion. And yes, I put Lady Gaga in the epic category.

So, here’s a slimmed down version of another big idea — comprehensive immigration reform. Let’s take off the cap on visas for highly skilled foreign workers.

For decades, well meaning bipartisan leaders (including the late Senator Kennedy), joined by immigration activists and business and religious leaders, have sought to address both legal and illegal immigration to ensure America is both safe and competitive. The proposals always included tough enforcement, stronger border controls, more transparent and better-managed immigration bureaucracies, and some way to stop putting our heads in the sand that we have millions of illegal immigrants living in this country with no access to a path to lawful citizenship.

And it has always failed. We’ve come close, but not close enough.

Yet the groups that support truly comprehensive reform continue to fear efforts to think small. They calculate that piecemeal efforts toward reform will pick off the carrots they need to entice business and others to support the more difficult aspects of immigration policy.

This grand strategy needs to be revisited. It’s clear that, once the political machinations halt, we end up without comprehensive reform and more National Guard on the border. Another strategy — the baby-steps strategy — is needed, and it would start by doing those pieces of opening up that are a lot less controversial: call them market-driven immigration policies.

From 1995 to 2005, 25 percent of America’s high-tech startups, employing over 400,000 workers, had an immigrant founder. Thirty-three of all PhDs and 57 percent of all post-doctorates in science and engineering from US universities were awarded to foreign-born students. Twenty-five percent of America’s international patents were based on the work of immigrants. In a global economy, it takes a certain smugness to create an immigration system that undermines our most dominant economic need — and a certain amount of short-sightedness to educate future global leaders and then force them to set up shop elsewhere.

But that’s the system we have.

There is a hard cap on the number of high-skilled (and often US-educated) workers under the H1B visa system; a cap that was filled by US companies in nine months in 2009, and in a matter of days in more prosperous 2008 and 2007.

Many supporters of the H1B visa cap argue that it protects US workers. It’s a familiar ruse — they are taking from us. Workers on high-skill visas make up less than 0.1 percent of the US workforce. In any event, there may be an argument to better refine the definition of “high skill’’ — it includes every profession from engineers, to lawyers, to models — but capping the number is a quota that has nothing to do with global need.

Which makes lifting the cap just the kind of baby step we should take. The modern civil rights movement purposefully culminated (and did not begin) with the hardest case, Brown vs. Board of Education. For decades before, leaders of that epic struggle fought for smaller reforms, including desegregating the military.

The effort to pass the DREAM Act — focusing on those undocumented aliens seeking to enlist in our armed forces or get an education — was in that same spirit. But with that attempt having failed, the visa cap provides another opportunity.

If Arizona is at the forefront of immigration animosity, Massachusetts is perfectly positioned to help write the counter-narrative. At MIT alone in the last decade, 53 assistant professors were able to stay in this country on an H1B visa. High-technology, life sciences, and university leaders in this state ought to use their leverage to begin a focused effort on this admittedly small but important piece of immigration reform. In the end, small change will begin to alter the way this nation talks, debates, and often yells about immigrants.

For too long, we’ve linked lifting caps on foreign experts to making it easier to provide a pathway to citizenship for other immigrants, in hopes of expanding support for comprehensive reform. Let’s try it the other way. Once we make room for foreign skilled workers to contribute fully to our economy, then maybe there will be more political space to see the benefits of doing something bigger.

And I don’t mean building a higher fence.

Juliette Kayyem, a guest columnist, is former homeland security adviser for Massachusetts and most recently served as assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security.