The following editorial appeared recently in the San Jose Mercury News:
"If you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you."
Those words, oddly enough, on Tuesday came out of the mouth of Sen. Rand Paul, the tea party darling who just a few years ago wanted an electrified underground border fence and an end to birthright citizenship.
Republicans in Congress may or may not agree on a path to citizenship, but they're certainly changing the way they talk about it. So we are increasingly optimistic that comprehensive immigration reform is possible. But new information about H-1B visas shows how complex the challenge will be. Whatever form the new rules take, they should encourage more highly skilled and educated women who wish to live and work in America to do so.
The Bay Area News Group's Matt O'Brien reported Tuesday that the H-1B visa program, which enables thousands of highly skilled immigrants to work in Silicon Valley, is dominated by men. Government figures he obtained indicate that women account for fewer than a third of visa holders here.
And the spouses of H-1B visa holders — some of whom also have valuable skills — often can't get permission to work. The lack of opportunity for women pushes many of these hardworking families to return to their home countries, when even Rand Paul says it would be good for them to stay.
Silicon Valley companies always have understood the benefits immigrants bring to communities and the economy. But the valley and the country won't be able to reap the full benefits of a diverse workforce if educated women are not attracted along with men.
Given that the H-1B program is rife with various kinds of abuse, it doesn't make sense to simply add a rule to include more women. A comprehensive overhaul is needed. But first, lawmakers need to understand the cause of the H-1B gender imbalance, and today they have insufficient data.
The Department of Homeland Security doesn't track visa holders by gender. The records O'Brien obtained are the number of visa holders entering the country in 2011, not the number of visas granted. That tells us the basic makeup of the population but not why others don't come.
A congressional hearing Monday looked at other immigration obstacles for women and families. Witnesses urged lawmakers to pass legislation that keeps families together and allows women who live here but have no documented work history to be eligible for citizenship. These concepts are essential to true reform.
The challenges of attracting educated women and helping women who first came here illegally are different, and reforms need to address both in fair and practical ways. In the case of today's limited use of H-1B visas by women in skilled fields, Congress needs better information to establish the reason and then to remedy it.