Sorry, tech visas are all gone

An article in yesterday’s Electronic News notes that the fiscal 2008 U.S. quota for H-1B visas — which allow scientists, engineers, computer programmers and other skilled workers from around the world to to work here for limited periods — was filled in just two days.

Visa applications were accepted starting April 2, and within two days the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) received about 150,000 applications — more than twice the maximum 65,000 new visas alotted for the entire upcoming year. An additional 20,000 applicants with a US-earned masters or higher degree are considered exempt from the cap, but the USCIS is not sure yet how many of the initial rush of applicants met that criteria.

Meanwhile, I’d estimate that close to one-fourth of the enrollment in my children’s Colorado schools these days are the children of illegal Mexican and Central American immigrants (that’s just the illegals — the total Latino school-age population is closer to 40%). These are not, for the most part, the children of H-1B applicants.

You can’t blame these families for wanting to come here, where the jobs are plentiful and the quality of life is far better than in their own poverty-stricken countries. Yet this influx of illegal immigrants is putting a real strain on our schools, health care and law enforcement systems.

You have to wonder what U.S. immigration policies (or the lack thereof) are trying to accomplish.

Clearly there are legitimate questions that need to be addressed about the efficacy and aims of the H-1B program, which if not properly regulated could depress wages and cost the jobs of U.S. scientists and engineers.

On the other hand, our universities simply aren’t turning out enough top-notch graduates in these fields, at least not graduates with U.S. citizenship, and the only way many of our companies are getting by is by recruiting foreign scientists and engineers.

Boulder venture capitalist Brad Feld, for one, says he’s constantly trying to find enough qualified software developers for companies he’s investing in. “There is just no reason why there should be a quota on this type of H-1B visa,” he writes in his Feld Thoughts blog.

What’s more beneficial to the U.S. economy — skilled scientists and engineers who boost the productivity and innovation of our knowledge-based economy, or the mostly uneducated throngs that pour across our southern border in search of menial labor?

Why are the best and brightest applicants limited to a relative trickle, while the doors are thrown virtually wide open for millions of the world’s poor, huddled masses?

Immigration is a complex, emotional issue that could emerge as a major factor in next fall’s presidential elections. And I don’t pretend to have all, or even most, of the answers.

But it’s time for us to begin dealing rationally with the nearly insatiable desire of foreign nationals to work here, and U.S. companies’ eagerness to employ them. Surely we can be smarter and more deliberate about harnessing that supply and demand, and directing this remarkable influx of human talent towards goals that further the best interests of the United States.


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