If you’ve been paying attention to jobs reports over the last year, you’ve heard some common themes again and again: large corporations are sitting on trillions in cash but worry that consumer demand will slump; manufacturing is rebounding in some areas but exports are weak due to European uncertainty; growth in China and elsewhere is starting to slow; and while too many Americans are out of work, employers can’t find enough qualified applicants to fill jobs in programming, engineering, and the other skilled positions.
One solution to the last of these problems is foreign workers. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s when the tech industry was booming, no one blinked much as talented programmers and engineers came from the top schools in India and other developing countries and filled demand for positions many native workers couldn’t perform. According to the Brookings Institution, Congress raised the cap on available H-1B visas in late 2000 from 115,000 to 195,000 to absorb this influx of foreign talent. In fact, this flow of labor became so robust that Congress then tamped down on the number of available H-1B visas for skilled workers, sending the cap plunging down to 65,000 in 2004.
In 2006 another 20,000 H-1B visas were made available for graduates of U.S. universities, but since then the number has been unchanged. This year the H-1B cap was reached after about 10 weeks, which Business Week reports suggests an uptick in economic growth for this year. When employers are not able to squeeze their chosen workers into the H-1B framework, they often turn to loopholes available through other forms of working visas. The effects are dually that the costs of doing business increase and some talented workers aren’t connected with the companies that seek them, and both effects impair the efficient churning of the economy.
It’s no secret that the issues of unauthorized immigration are thorny, but H-1Bs are a form of legal immigration. That even this aspect of our immigration system remains in gridlock speaks volumes about the stasis that prevents improvement of our broken immigration system. Lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum have, at times, put forth common-sense proposals for addressing the many quirks and anachronisms of the employment-based immigration system, but movement on these consensus issues is blocked by refusal to seek compromise on the most contentious issues. Rightly or wrongly, many advocates for comprehensive immigration reform are wary of finding common ground on marginal issues because these small victories may come at the cost of wide-ranging reforms.