Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Blog Release: Revamping Immigration Rules for Highly Skilled Workers

From Bill Gates (via Richard Herman):

Written Testimony of

William H. Gates

Chairman, Microsoft Corporation


Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Before the

Committee on Science and Technology

United States House of Representatives

March 12, 2008

The second set of policies that we must consider if we are going to address the shortage of scientists and engineers centers on our immigration rules for highly skilled workers. Today, knowledge and expertise are the essential raw materials that companies and countries need in order to be competitive. We live in an economy that depends on the ability of innovative companies to attract and retain the very best talent, regardless of nationality or citizenship. Unfortunately, the U.S. immigration system makes attracting and retaining high-skilled immigrants exceptionally challenging for U.S. firms.

Congress’s failure to pass high-skilled immigration reform has exacerbated an already grave situation. For example, the current base cap of 65,000 H-1B visas is arbitrarily set and bears no relation to the U.S. economy’s demand for skilled professionals. For fiscal year 2007, the supply ran out more than four months before that fiscal year even began.(14) For fiscal year 2008, the supply of H-1B visas ran out on April 2, 2007, the first day that petitions could be filed and 6 months before the visas would even be issued.(15) Nearly half of those who sought a visa on that day did not receive one.(16)

This situation has caused a serious disruption in the flow of talented STEM graduates to U.S. companies. Because an H-1B petition generally can be filed only for a person who holds a degree, when May/June 2007 graduates received their degrees, the visa cap for fiscal year 2008 had already been reached. Accordingly, U.S. firms will be unable to hire those graduates on an H-1B visa until the beginning of fiscal year 2009, or October 2008.

As a result, many U.S. firms, including Microsoft, have been forced to locate staff in countries that welcome skilled foreign workers to do work that could otherwise have been done in the United States, if it were not for our counterproductive immigration policies. Last year, for example, Microsoft was unable to obtain H-1B visas for one-third of the highly qualified foreign-born job candidates that we wanted to hire.

If we increase the number of H-1B visas that are available to U.S. companies, employment of U.S. nationals would likely grow as well. For instance, Microsoft has found that for every H-1B hire we make, we add on average four additional employees to support them in various capacities. Our experience is not unique. A recent study of technology companies in the S&P 500 found that, for every H-1B visa requested, these leading U.S. technology companies increased their overall employment by five workers.(17)

Moreover, the simple fact is that highly skilled foreign-born workers make enormous contributions to our economy. A recent survey by Duke University and the University of California − Berkeley found that one quarter of all start-up U.S. engineering and technology firms established between 1995 and 2005 had at least one foreign-born founder.(18) By 2005, these companies produced $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers.(19)

The United States will find it far more difficult to maintain its competitive edge over the next 50 years if it excludes those who are able and willing to help us compete. Other nations are benefiting from our misguided policies. They are revising their immigration policies to attract highly talented students and professionals who would otherwise study, live, and work in the United States for at least part of their careers. To address this problem, I urge Congress to take the following steps.

First, we need to encourage the best students from abroad to enroll in our colleges and universities and, if they wish, to remain in the United States when their studies are completed. One interim step that could be taken would be to extend so-called Optional Practical Training (OPT), the period of employment that foreign students are permitted in connection with their degree program. Students are currently allowed a maximum of 12 months in OPT before they must change their immigration status to continue working in the United States. Extending OPT from 12 to 29 months would help to alleviate the crisis employers are facing due to the current H-1B visa shortage. This only requires action by the Executive Branch, and Congress and this Committee should strongly urge the Department of Homeland Security to take such action immediately.

Second, Congress should create a streamlined path to permanent resident status for highly skilled workers. Rather than allowing highly skilled, well-trained innovators to remain for only a very limited period, we should encourage a greater number to become permanent U.S. residents so that they can help drive innovation and economic growth alongside America’s native-born talent. While some foreign students will undoubtedly choose to return home after graduation, it is extremely counterproductive to prevent them from remaining here to contribute their talents and expertise to our economic success if that is what they would like to do.

Third, Congress should increase the cap on visas. The current cap is so low that it virtually assures that highly skilled foreign graduates will leave the United States and work elsewhere after graduation. By increasing the number of visas granted each year, Congress can help U.S. industry meet its near-term need for qualified workers even as we build up our long-term capability to supply these workers domestically through education reform.

Ultimately, however, if we are to align our immigration policy with global realities and ensure our place as the world’s leading innovator, Congress must make additional changes to our employment-based immigration system.

The current system caps employment-based visas − or “green cards” − at 140,000 per fiscal year. Because that number includes spouses and children of applicants, the actual number of visas available for workers is far fewer than 140,000. Moreover, the number of green cards issued to nationals of any one country cannot exceed 7 percent of the total number of visas issued in a given fiscal year. These two factors have caused multi-year backlogs for thousands of highly skilled individuals and are having a chilling effect on America’s ability to attract and retain great talent.

I urge Congress to pass legislation that does away with per-country limits and significantly increases the number of green cards available in any fiscal year. Failure to do so will add to the already years-long wait for green cards and only encourage talented foreign nationals who are already contributing to innovation in U.S. companies to leave and take their talents elsewhere. Innovation is the engine of job growth; if we discourage innovation here at home, economic growth will decline, resulting in fewer jobs for American workers.

I want to emphasize that the shortage of scientists and engineers is so acute that we must do both: reform our education system and reform our immigration policies. This is not an either-or proposition. If we do not do both, U.S. companies simply will not have the talent they need to innovate and compete.


14 United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Press Release, USCIS Reaches H-1B Cap (June 1, 2006) (indicating that the H-1B cap for FY 2007 was reached on May 26, 2006), available at

15 United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Press Release, USCIS reaches FY 2008 H-1B Cap (Apr. 3, 2007) (indicating that more H-1B petitions were filed on April 2, 2007 – the first day on which petitions could be filed that year – than there were H-1B numbers available under the cap), available at

16 United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Press Release, USCIS Updates Count of FY 2008 H-1B Cap Filings (Apr. 10, 2007) (stating that USCIS had received approximately 120,000 H-1B petitions subject to the cap as soon as petitions could be filed, and that those petitions would be subjected to a lottery to determine which 65,000 would be accepted and adjudicated), available at

17 National Foundation for American Policy, H-1B Visas and Job Creation (2008), available at

18 Vivek Wadhwa et al., America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs (2007), available at

19 Id.

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