A Modest Proposal to Solve the H-1B Visa Crisis

Rather than raising the H-1B visa cap, let's increase the rights and privileges of skilled worker immigrants, and fast-track them to citizenship.
Posted November 15, 2007

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

The technology industry -- the companies that provide hardware, software and IT services -- is at war with itself over the American H-1B visa program.

The H-1B is by definition a non-immigrant, temporary visa -- it's essentially a guest worker program for yuppies.

The recipient of an H-1B visa must be championed by a company, and cannot easily change jobs once here, which translates into a kind of low-paid "indentured servitude." The visa lasts six years. Spouses can come with, but can't work while here. To reapply, the visa holder must leave for a year before coming back.

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H1-B visas are in such demand (by both American companies and foreign skilled workers) that the quota for the whole year was filled in one day!

The Controversy

The program is controversial. Proponents argue that by enabling businesses to hire skilled workers from abroad, U.S. companies are better able to compete in the global marketplace. That competitiveness enables them to stay in business, and hire more American employees.

Opponents charge that H-1B visa holders displace Americans because they're paid less, and they lower American wages for skilled work. They also claim that H-1B visas provide a disincentive for American students to choose careers in technical fields like engineering.

The current cap of 65,000 people is itself controversial. Business executives want to raise it, some worker-advocacy groups want to lower it. (An additional 20,000 visas are allowed to workers with graduate degrees from U.S. universities, and there is no cap for hiring by non-profit companies, government research labs and universities.)

The controversy is especially acute in tech centers like Silicon Valley because such skilled workers are so crucial to global competitiveness.

When you think of H-1B visa workers, you tend to think of engineers, designers and software developers. But, oddly, the H-1B program also includes fashion models!

A modest (but heretical) proposal

The H-1B is a "dual-intent" visa, which makes it possible to apply for a green card while on the visa, and many do -- not with the intent of becoming U.S. citizens, but as a loop-hole to get around the six-year maximum stay.

The U.S. granted 1,266,264 immigrants legal residence -- i.e. green cards -- in 2006. The overwhelming majority of recipients were unskilled, poorly educated immigrants. Currently, a legal permanent resident must live in the United States for five years on a green card before applying for citizenship.

So here's my proposal: Let's transform the H-1B visa into a special "H-1B green card." We can retain the 65k cap on the total number of skilled foreign workers, but they'll be given all the rights and privileges of any other green card holder, except the "H-1B green card" expires after six years.

Most importantly, they should be allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship any time during their stay, and become fully naturalized U.S. citizens on the first day of their fifth year if they choose. However, if they fail to become citizens within the six-year period, they have to leave (as they would have with the H-1B visa).

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Rather than raising the H-1B visa cap, let's increase the rights and privileges of skilled worker immigrants, and fast-track them to citizenship. Rather than using Silicon Valley as a training camp for foreign companies, let's actually keep the skilled workers here.

This proposal benefits everyone (except foreign economies). It favors skilled immigrants who want to become Americans and keep their skills here, rather than bring them back (along with American trade secrets) to their countries of origin. They'll have to be paid more (and therefore won't depress American wages), because they'll be able to change jobs, will be more likely to buy homes and have kids -- all of which encourage the demand for higher wages. And they won't be "stealing American jobs" because, soon enough, they themselves will be Americans.

Meanwhile, American companies like Microsoft, IBM and Oracle benefit, because the total number of skilled workers they can hire and import from abroad rises, as "H-1B green card" holders transition to citizens and free up more H-1B spots. American companies will be more competitive, and will be more likely to stay in business, hire more workers and grow.

We maintain our cap on temporary skilled workers, and America becomes slightly smarter and more skilled by the addition of a well-educated citizen of demonstrated value to the economy.

Hey, I've got nothing against your tired, your poor, and your huddled masses. But IT grads are yearning to breathe free, too.

Let's do ourselves a favor and leverage the appeal of American citizenship to build a smarter, more skilled and educated population.

Plus, we can always use more fashion models.

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Tags: programmers, outsource, H-1 visa, H-1b visa crisis, immigrant tech worker

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