WASHINGTON — The executive chairman at Google urged Congress on Wednesday to increase the number of high-skilled work visas made available to foreigners and to deal with other immigration issues later on.
Eric Schmidt spoke Wednesday at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Schmidt said he believes the United States is better off having more immigration, not less, but he particularly is focused on allowing more immigrants into the U.S. with specialized technical skills.
"In the long list of stupid policies of the U.S. government, I think our attitude toward immigration has got to be near the top," Schmidt said in answering a question about the biggest policy change he would like to see the federal government make.
"We take very, very smart people, bring them into the country, give them a diploma and kick them out where they go on to create companies that compete with us," Schmidt said. "Brilliant strategy."
Schmidt said that increasing the number of H-1B visas, a program that's separate from the student visa program, would grow the economy because many immigrants will go on to become lawful permanent residents and start their own businesses and hire workers. He also said he believes a majority of lawmakers from both parties agree on this point, which is why they should deal with other aspects of immigration reform separately.
A bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah would expand the current annual cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to between 115,000 and 195,000 visas depending upon market condition and demand. But a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday reinforced that some top lawmakers are strongly opposed to expanding the program. They argued that the U.S. has plenty of high-skilled workers, but companies would rather look elsewhere because it's cheaper.
"Over the years the program has become a government-assisted way for employers to bring in cheaper foreign labor, and now it appears these foreign workers take over, rather than complement, the U.S. workforce," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said American schools are graduating twice as many students specializing in science, technology, engineering and math than there are jobs to fill in those specialties.
"It has nothing to do with trying to find the best and brightest," Sessions said of the H-1B visa program's proposed expansion.
Schmidt served as CEO at Google for a decade and his role now includes government outreach. He is also serving on a task force the Democratic National Committee organized to help it examine what went wrong in the 2014 midterm elections.
Schmidt took on a wide range of questions for about an hour. He voiced concerns about the government attempting to regulate the Internet.
"It's so difficult to predict how quickly this thing moves, and many of the problems that people have can be simply solved by technology that people are inventing," Schmidt said.
He also said that he still believes a college education is critical for the vast majority of young people and that stories of success like those of college dropouts Steve Jobs or Bill Gates are "cherry-picked" exceptions. Most people, including himself, had little idea at age 18 what they wanted to do in life.
"Better to have them in college than at large," he joked before turning serious. "The vast majority of people do very well by going to college."