Thursday, December 20, 2007

IntoPittsburgh: International Immigration

Pittsburgh 2.0 is one of four IntoPittsburgh projects. Continuing in no particular order, International Immigration Pittsburgh is also important for improving regional entrepreneurship and spurring job creation. Ironically, Pittsburgh does well in attracting both international and domestic talent. The rub is that most of these newcomers are students, who tend to leave after graduation.

In a recent article, we learn that Pittsburgh's dilemma is also a shared concern of Cleveland. Even if international students wanted to stay, doing so isn't easy:

After graduation an international student may obtain OPT (Optional Practical Training), a one-year work authorization that is not employer specific, therefore allowing the graduate to work anywhere as long as it is in their field. But once that year is up, an international student is required to obtain a H1B visa — and that's where problems begin.

The H1B is a non-immigrant classification for foreigners who are employed by U.S. companies. Each year only 65,000 H1B visas are issued, a significantly lower number compared to the mid-90s when the cap was as high as 195,000. "[The 65,000] are exhausted the first day that we're allowed to apply for them," [says Richard Herman, a Cleveland-based immigration attorney and activist]. "On that first day, April 1, the government received 115,000 applications."

Once OPT runs out, immigrant graduates must find positions with companies that are willing to act as a sponsor for the H1B. But many companies end up turning away such candidates for fear that time and training will be wasted if one of the coveted visas cannot be obtained. So although Northeast Ohio's universities hold a tremendous amount of international talent in their classrooms, regional companies avoid recruiting these individuals because of H1B issues that follow. Some foreign graduates reenroll in school; others are forced to return home.

"The H1B cap is creating a huge problem for tech companies," Herman says. The issue is raising national concern. In 2005 Microsoft-founder Bill Gates testified before Congress on the need to do away with the H1B cap and allow foreign talent to prosper within U.S. companies.

Richard Herman contacted me after my posts touting his policy innovation. Now, I'm even more confident that Rust Belt cities should support Mr. Herman's initiative. But I doubt Northeast Ohio or Southwestern Pennsylvania can go it alone. We should move on the bloggers summit in Erie and advance a pro-Rust Belt immigration agenda, among other things. I even have a few ideas about how smaller cities could benefit given the increasing demand for talent throughout the megaregion.

One way or another, we at IntoPittsburgh intend to move this lobbying effort along. I hope other shrinking cities will join the cause and expect updates on progress in the near future.

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