Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Another Reason for the DREAM ACT

It seems improbable that all the talk about HB-1 visas never mentiones the DREAM ACT - at least I haven't seen any articles that have. Of course, you know that if the U.S. is charging $5,000 for the visas, they won't make it any easier for DREAM ACT engineers and computer scientists.

Looking at the E.U.'s new Blue Card - together with the news that Lou Dobbs is moving to prime time - it just makes me think we are going backwards.

On the other hand, maybe its all an illusion. Instead, maybe Dick Cheney will be impeached, neither Romney nor Guiliani will win the Republican nomination, the Democratic Senate and House will finally get it together, and the DREAM ACT will be passed - along with reasonable immigration reform.


From the Los Angeles Times
Keeping innovators out of the country
Low quotas and high fees mean the U.S. is unable to lure the best foreign talent.
By Andrés Martinez

November 7, 2007

On the same week last month that the European Union unveiled its new, no-hassle "blue card" program to attract highly skilled migrant workers, the U.S. Senate voted to hike employer fees for H1-B visas to $5,000. H1-Bs allow U.S. employers to bring foreign talent into the American workforce. It was a telling coincidence, demonstrating that as the rest of the world is becoming more welcoming of skilled immigrants who fuel innovation, the United States, mired in its know-nothing Lou Dobbesian nativism, is turning its back on one of its great competitive advantages -- its historic knack for playing the role of host to the world's most creative tinkerers.

For the nation, and for California, turning away gifted computer scientists and engineers to more welcoming jurisdictions could prove devastating. According to a recent study by the National Venture Capital Assn., over the last 15 years, foreign nationals have started a quarter of U.S. venture-backed public companies. These are companies that generate about $130 billion in annual revenue and that employ hundreds of thousands of Americans. Within California alone, foreign-born entrepreneurs played a key role in founding Intel, eBay, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems and Google.

The H1-B fee hike is a mere nuisance compared with the scarcity of such visas for needed workers. Congress has set the number of H1-Bs -- which are three-year visas -- at an arbitrarily low 65,000 a year. In April of this year, the first day companies could apply for the visas for fiscal 2008 (which started Oct. 1), the government was swamped with 133,000 applications. That means a lot of high-tech innovators will go to work elsewhere. Earlier this year, Microsoft expanded a research-and-development center in Vancouver, and it cited the dysfunctional U.S. immigration system as one reason to go to Canada, which is eager to attract, rather than harass, foreign talent.

In congressional testimony last June on the visa shortfall, Google's vice president of "people operations," Laszlo Bock, said the company had failed to get visas for 70 engineers. Some of these individuals, who should be innovating in California, are now parked at Google campuses in Switzerland or Britain.

Does it really make sense to ban from the U.S. engineers whom Google has determined it needs to continue revolutionizing the Web? It isn't as though U.S. workers are victimized by the addition of outstanding foreign workers. Google has hired thousands of people this year alone, and only 8% of its U.S. workforce is here on a visa. Moreover, the innovations resulting from bringing the world's best and brightest together in Silicon Valley lead directly to the creation of more jobs for U.S. workers.

Orkut Buyukkokten, a Stanford University-trained computer scientist from Turkey who obtained his H1-B in 2002, was cited as a case in point by Bock. Buyukkokten's first name is now a brand, the name of a popular social networking service. He is just one of many foreign computer scientists who have led to the company's explosive growth.

Google will be fine, even if Lou Dobbs is elected president and all of the company's innovation takes place overseas, but I worry about California's future if overly restrictive immigration policies become the long-term norm. And it isn't only the corporate icons that could be jeopardized but the state's vaunted research universities as well.

The symbiotic relationship between places such as UC Berkeley and Stanford and high-tech start-ups is widely understood -- from the Hewlett-Packard era to our own Google age. But a key reason for that harmonic relationship has always been Silicon Valley's accessibility to the world's best and brightest. If high-tech start-ups start favoring more welcoming places such as Australia, Canada or even Europe, their universities will likely benefit at U.S. universities' expense.

In 2005, two-thirds of U.S. doctoral electrical engineering students and half of computer science doctoral students were foreign born. Even if we could remain an educational magnet while closing the door to highly skilled foreign workers, would it really make sense to continue investing in the education of these great minds, only to see the fruits of their labor enrich more welcoming jurisdictions? The number of jobs in the U.S. for computer software engineers is expected to reach 450,000 by 2014, according to the government, and there is no way all these jobs will be filled solely by graduates -- foreign or native born -- of American universities.

The problems created by an unrealistically low number of H1-B visas are compounded by the notorious backlog for permanent-residency green cards, the alternative for foreigners who want to become U.S. workers. Green card applications (and lives) remain in limbo for more than five years. (Europe aims to process its blue-card applications within months.) The overall system screams "we don't want you here" to talented workers the country in fact needs.

As in the case of the low-skilled agricultural workforce also crucial to this state, most members of Congress know that it is urgent to secure the supply of needed computer scientists and engineers. But in the aftermath of the collapse of comprehensive immigration reform this year, and the attending anti-immigrant hysteria, our representatives seem too paralyzed to do what the rest of the world knows to make sense, which is to try harder to woo those who will be creating the Intels, eBays and Googles of tomorrow.

Andrés Martinez, former editor of The Times' editorial page, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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