We Need a 21st Century Immigration System

Modernizing the Immigration System

In an election-year, it is easy for politicians to focus on border security, refugees, and undocumented immigrants. But that misses an urgent need to modernize our dysfunctional and outdated high-skilled immigration policies. Many nonpartisan think tanks like the National Foundation for American Policy, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and the Partnership for a New American Economy have all recently pointed out positive contributions immigrants make to our economy. Unless we modernize our high-skilled immigration system, our companies will be at a competitive disadvantage in the global economy. Sen. Orrin Hatch has proposed with the Immigration Innovation (I-Squared) Act, to do just that.

The need for and benefits of high-skilled immigration are compelling.  The Partnership points out that in 2014 there were 19,651 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs advertised online in Utah but only 1,336 unemployed STEM workers – one unemployed worker for almost 15 open jobs.  With more than 7,000 foreign-born STEM workers in Utah in 2014, these immigrants are not just an essential part of Utah’s current workforce – they are likely to be indispensable for the future of Utah’s high-tech industries.  According to the Partnership, immigrants complement the native-born workforce.  100 high-skilled immigrants with graduate-level STEM training from U.S. universities create 262 new jobs for U.S.-born workers in the following 7 years.  As U.S. workers age and retire, and as the high-tech economy expands, these immigrants and their families are essential for the new high-skilled workers and taxpayers Utah and the USA need.

Outdated Immigration System

Our current immigration system is outdated and stifles the growth of many companies that need high-skilled foreign workers.  One NFAP report notes demand for high-skilled technical labor has increased dramatically since 1990, the last year Congress set annual quotas on H-1B visas (65,000) [the most common temporary work visa] and employment-based Green Cards (140,000).  Considering the Internet was not available globally and smartphones and social media did not exist 25 years ago, Congress has neglected and largely forgotten high-skilled immigration.  Most concerning are recent efforts by a few in Congress to restrict high-skilled immigration, claiming it harms U.S. workers, depresses wages, and is susceptible to fraud – claims not supported by scholarly research.  NFAP notes, such efforts to restrict immigration in the USA actually harms economic growth, entrepreneurship, and job creation when the country can least afford it.

As a longtime leader on this issue, Senator Hatch has pressed for reform that modernizes high-skilled immigration to meet the high-tech economy’s demands.  With bipartisan support and praise from industry, Sen. Hatch proposes long-overdue and much-needed reforms so our country remains competitive in the global economy.  I-Squared would: (1) increase the number of H-1B visas based on the economy’s needs while protecting all workers; (2) increase access to Green Cards; and (3) direct fees U.S. employers pay for H-1B visas and Green Cards to scholarships for American workers to be trained and educated to compete in the high-tech economy.

Permitting Utah and U.S. companies to employ more high-skilled immigrants helps our economy, while restricting such employment harms it.  It increases productivity, grows high-skilled labor, increases wages and jobs, complements native-born labor, promotes foreign entrepreneurship, fills important positions for cutting edge companies, pays taxes, funds scholarships, contributes patents, and supplies highly-skilled individuals who help keep jobs in Utah and America.  These recent reports should spur thoughtful discourse about practical policy solutions to modernize our high-skilled immigration system, such as Senator Hatch’s innovative and forward-thinking I-Squared Act – solutions that enable us to tap into the full potential of all immigrants who call America home and further strengthen our country and economy.

Tim Wheelwright is a shareholder with the law firm of Durham Jones & Pinegar, which has offices in Salt Lake City, Lehi, Ogden, St. George, and Las Vegas, and the chair of the Salt Lake Chamber’s Immigration Task Force.  He advises individuals and businesses on routine and complex immigration matters, is frequently tapped to advise business and community leaders and policy makers about immigration policy, and is featured as a source in local media. @TimWheelwright