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In our opinion: Make visas fairer

Published: Friday, Dec. 16 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

A bill designed to make it easier for companies to hire highly skilled foreign-born talent recently sailed through the House of Representatives, 389 to 15.

Associated Press

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For all the gnashing of teeth over immigration reform in Congress, it turns out there is one item on which legislators from both parties can agree. A bill designed to make it easier for companies to retain highly skilled foreign-born talent recently sailed through the House of Representatives, 389 to 15.

The legislation is quite narrow, tweaking only one small provision of a complicated process, but it is a worthy first step toward fixing a backlogged, bureaucratic and, frankly, broken system.

The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, spearheaded by Utah's own Rep. Jason Chaffetz, tackles the process of awarding green cards, which stipulates that applicants from any one country can receive no more than 7 percent of all employment-based and family-sponsored visas in a given year. The problem with this 7 percent cap is that it results in workers from highly populated countries like India and China waiting years for a green card, while workers from smaller countries move to the front of the line, regardless of relative skill.

The Fairness act would eliminate the country-based quotas on employment visas, and it would raise the quota per country on family-sponsored visas. This would in turn allow businesses more freedom to hire the best advanced-degree candidates or skilled workers.

American universities are investing significantly in foreign students studying science, math, engineering and nursing, the majority of whom come from a short list of select countries. It only makes sense to reap the fruits of that investment by allowing as many as possible of these students to remain in the U.S. and contribute to the economy. The fairness act, unfortunately, does nothing to increase the overall number of available green cards; it only changes the allocation by country. (The U.S. issues roughly 140,000 employment-based green cards each year, a paltry figure.) But it represents productive thinking about legal immigration reform.

The Fairness act has been put on hold in the Senate by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a long-time advocate of a different set of visa reforms, who argues the House legislation does not adequately protect American jobs. It is difficult to sympathize with this logic, however, as the overall number of green cards would be unaffected. Even then, it is not at all clear that there are qualified Americans to fill many of the jobs for which employers are recruiting overseas talent.

Further, the claim that highly-skilled foreign workers would take American jobs is a narrow argument that ignores broader forces in job creation. Highly-skilled workers contribute to overall employment in ways that lower-skilled workers do not, both in terms of the innovation and ideas they bring to the companies they work for and in terms of their spending power due to the salaries they command. As well-paid consumers, they buy goods and services, increase demand and in effect offset the jobs they take in the jobs they create.

Fixing legal immigration is an important part of addressing illegal immigration, and even if Grassley manages to kill the reform in the Senate, there is hope for progress going forward. President Obama's jobs council supports issuing more high-skilled immigrant visas, as do GOP presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

The Fairness act would be a very small step forward, but incremental progress is still encouraging. We hope members of the Senate will take this opportunity to do something, however small, to begin reforming the country's immigration policies.

Correction: This editorial mistakenly said the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act addressed the H-1B visa process. It has been corrected to say that the act addresses applications for green cards, not H-1B visas.

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