SALT LAKE CITY — Demand for visas for highly skilled foreign workers grew 39 percent from more than a year ago, but the statutory caps remain static absent immigration reform.
That means employers who need the talents and know-how of foreign-born workers — many of whom were educated at American universities in technology, science, engineering fields — may not be able to fill positions.
"It's astounding to me what's happened this year. The thing is, the dust hasn't settled so we don't know who the winners are and who the losers are. You know, when there's those numbers, you're going to have some unhappy U.S. employers," said Tim Wheelwright, a Salt Lake immigration attorney.
On April 1, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began accepting petitions for a total of 85,000 visas for highly skilled workers for the 2015 fiscal year. Caps for the two types of visas — general and masters — were reached by April 7. Some 172,500 petitions were filed by April 10, according to the agency. That's up from 124,000 petitions a year ago.
This is the second year in a row that the statutory cap was reached within the first week of the filing period, immigration officials said.
Jeremy Robbins, executive director of the New York City-based Partnership for a New American Economy, said the inadequate cap on visas for highly skilled workers "is just one piece of the larger immigration puzzle, but it is an increasingly important one.
"As you think about our economy, it is an increasingly global economy. If we don't get talent here, talent will go elsewhere," he said.
Other nations with more flexible immigration systems benefit from highly skilled, well-educated workers who are unable to work in the United States because they cannot obtain visas, he said.
"The worst are the people that come out of our universities. If we are paying to train someone — whether we're giving them a scholarship or we're paying to fund their research through government funding — it is so backwards to think we can pay to train them to be the next great innovator in the world and then we're going to send them to our competitors to compete against us.
"It's just so fundamentally unsound," Robbins said.
For those who contend that international workers take jobs from Americans, Robbins said there are numerous high tech companies in the United States that cannot meet their workforce needs under the statutory limits on H-B1 visas.
"We're not talking about hundreds (of positions), we're talking about thousands of jobs that big tech companies can't fill. We have a system of temporary visas that is fundamentally broken," he said.
While many voices are urging Congress to pass immigration reform, Robbins said the challenges that the nation's high-tech, engineering and science-based industries face in being able to hire a sufficient number of well-educated workers may help move reform efforts.
Robbins said he remains optimistic that Congress will address immigration this year. If not this year, Robbins said, reform is in the offing.
"It's not a question of if we win, it's a question of when we win. You have economics, the politics, the demographics and they're only pointing in one direction. There's going to be immigration reform. There absolutely has to be both in terms of the economy and the political future of both parties," he said.
Wheelwright said he, too, has renewed optimism that Congress will address immigration reform.
"I found myself feeling quite pessimistic until maybe the last week or so and I'm starting to see some movement. You had the faith-based leaders who met with President Obama, and you see some of the comments that were made coming out of that meeting," he said, referring to Tuesday's meeting at the White House.
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, joined fellow faith leaders Tuesday urging action on immigration reform.
"You also see some of the advocates starting to mobilize. One reason I was discouraged was I wasn't hearing those voices. Now they're starting to pick up. We'll just see what happens. Hopefully Congress will hear those voices and say 'OK, we've got to get this fixed, we've got to do this,'" Wheelwright said.
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