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Global Migration During An Economic Crisis: Is Inviting Immigrant Innovators Important For The U.S. Economy?

by Lynn Shotwell and Rebecca Peters

An Invitation to the World's Immigrant Innovators?
During this time of economic uncertainty, should the United States ignore or invite top immigrant innovators to our workforce? Recent years have made it clear that the United States does not have a monopoly on the world's best and brightest. So, can we utilize immigration to drive a new economy and the next generation of products and ideas? The American Council on International Personnel (ACIP) believes we can and we should.

As unemployment increases, many countries are restricting migration, even of the innovators who will create the products and services of tomorrow. In February, the United States limited financial institutions who had received bailout funds from easily accessing H-1B visas, and the United Kingdom's Migration Advisory Committee has proposed a variety of restrictions on skilled migrants.

In June, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) released its International Migration Outlook 2009, which states that the global recession is likely to cause the first major decline in migrant workers to OECD countries since the 1980s. This trend is worldwide: in the United States, the 65,000 H-1B visa cap remains open; in Australia, temporary skilled migrant flows fell by more than 25 percent in the first half of 2009; and as noted by the OECD, the Czech Republic, Japan and Spain are paying unemployed migrants to return to their home countries.

Some Countries have Sent their Invitations. . .
In contrast, some countries are inviting the world's top talent to join their workforces. Canada recognized the value of its foreign student talent by allowing them to obtain work permits, without a job offer, for three years after completing their studies. Australia's point system enables some students to convert directly to permanent resident status. And, the European Council approved a directive urging member states to adopt the "Blue Card," a visa they hope will attract workers to Europe instead of the United States. However, the United States has not extended such an invitation to top talent- at least not yet.

The Next U.S. Immigration Bill - an Opportunity to Send an Invitation
The United States can seize upon the opportunities for economic growth presented by these uncertain times by reforming its immigration policies, but it will take a thoughtful and intelligent debate and a bold commitment from all stakeholders. Progress has already been made: President Obama and key legislators held an immigration strategy session at the end of June in the midst of other pressing legislative priorities; both the President and Congressional leaders have expressed a desire to complete a comprehensive immigration bill early next year. On August 20, ACIP and over 100 other immigration stakeholders were invited to the White House to share our views on reform with Secretary Napolitano and agency officials. President Obama stopped by this meeting to show his commitment to immigration reform.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Immigration Subcommittee, recently outlined principles he believes will be critical to gain the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster of a bill in the Senate. Encouragingly, two of these principles support employers that utilize highly-educated foreign talent. The first calls on all legislators to invite immigrant innovators to our shores, stating: "We must encourage the world's best and brightest individuals to come to the United States and create the new technologies and businesses that will employ countless American workers, but must discourage businesses from using our immigration laws as a means to obtain temporary and less-expensive foreign labor to replace capable American workers."1 The second asks legislators to charge the government with ensuring that our workforce is legal, saying there is a need for a "…biometric-based employer verification system - with tough enforcement and auditing…to significantly diminish the job magnet that attracts illegal aliens to the United States and to provide certainty and simplicity for employers."2

Given this recent activity at the highest levels of government, we are hopeful that an intelligent immigration bill inviting the world's immigrant innovators to join our workforce will be enacted. However, in this economic climate, many legislators will need to be certain that foreign talent is not displacing U.S. workers. So the critical question becomes: How can we best structure our immigration system to invite top talent to grow future jobs, while being mindful of the current economic and labor market conditions and ensuring that U.S. employers do not abuse the system?

The Answer: Invite Immigrant Innovators, but Enact Smart Enforcement
In order to compete in knowledge-based global markets, U.S. companies, universities and non-profit institutions must have access to talent without regard to nationality. However, at the same time immigration laws must be more effectively enforced against employers that abuse the system. ACIP's Board of Directors recently adopted "Principles for Immigration Reform" that establish a framework for creating an efficient, predictable and flexible immigration system that fosters economic growth.

First and foremost, immigration reform should recognize that most U.S. employers make good faith efforts to recruit and train workers in compliance with employment and immigration laws. Only a handful of employers are out to defraud the system and they should be punished. The government needs to be smarter about how it separates the good from the bad. For almost a decade, ACIP has been advocating that the government begin this process by identifying those employers with a proven track record of compliance. A "Trusted Employer Registration" program could be modeled, for example, on programs such as the Blanket L or J programs, and reward those employers who have demonstrated excellent compliance practices by ensuring that they have timely, predictable and efficient access to visas for foreign professionals.

Second, immigration reform should recognize that employers themselves - not commissions or bureaucrats -- are best equipped to determine the education and skills required to build and sustain their critical human resources, as well as to know if there is a shortage of skills or whether an individual is the best person for the job.

Third, immigration reform should simplify our immigration system by consolidating and streamlining the current "alphabet soup" of employment-based visa categories. We must provide flexibility for workers to stay temporarily or permanently, recognizing that "temporary" can mean a short business trip or a 20-year research project, and that there are valid reasons for an employee to remain on the foreign payroll. We must also facilitate the contributions of foreign professionals without regard to nationality by lifting the per-country limits on green cards.

Fourth, immigration reform should recognize the importance of family unity by providing immediate visas and work authorization for the spouses, permanent partners and children of foreign professionals. In the 2007 comprehensive immigration reform debate, there were proposals that would have separated low-skilled guest workers from their families for many years. This is not fair to either low-skilled or high-skilled workers. Likewise, families should not be separated simply because they do not conform to the traditional nuclear family. Companies are increasingly providing benefits for domestic partners and U.S. immigration laws should do the same.

Fifth, immigration reform should be considered in the broader context of U.S. education and competitiveness policy, including K-12 and post-secondary education and training, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) fields. We must recognize that it is in our national interest to provide opportunities to all graduates of U.S. universities regardless of their immigration status, by embracing their talent, not turning it away.

Sixth, immigration reform should provide employers with an efficient, accurate, reliable and secure electronic employment verification system for new hires, including a biometric option. While ACIP has opposed mandatory use of E-Verify, we are working to improve it for those employers who do participate in the program. Finally, immigration reform should provide the necessary tools for the government to effectively identify and sanction employers that abuse our immigration laws, but without unduly burdening those that act in good faith. For example, a Trusted Employer program would enable the government to focus more on unknown employers. However, we also recognize that additional measures are needed to enable the government to leverage its investigative powers and resources to sanction employers who take advantage of foreign labor.

While ACIP's Principles are directed at the upcoming debate in the United States, they would not differ significantly in any similar debates concerning the employment of highly-educated foreign professionals in the United Kingdom, Australia, Spain, Brazil, India, China or elsewhere. Ultimately, enabling companies to attract, hire and retain the right people in the right place at the right time is what will drive economic recovery and growth. Now is the time for the United States to send our invitation worldwide.

End Notes

1Remarks by U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer, 6th Annual Immigration Law & Policy Conference, Migration Policy Institute, June 24, 2009.


About The Author

Lynn Shotwell is the Executive Director of the American Council on International Personnel. A non-profit association formed in 1972, the American Council on International Personnel (ACIP) is the only employer network dedicated to employment-based immigration, bridging the private and public sectors to promote sensible, forward-thinking immigration policies. ACIP's members are companies, universities, research institutions and organizations throughout the world striving to ensure compliance with immigration policies so that they can employ the critical talent they need, when and where they need it. Additionally, ACIP membership makes it possible for organizations to bring international employees and students to the United States for on-site professional training and cultural education, through its J-1 Exchange Visitor programs that are designated by the U.S. Department of State. She first joined ACIP in 1996 as the Legal Counsel and Director of Government Relations. Ms. Shotwell has served on the Executive Committee of the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, the Steering Committee of Compete America, as co-chair of Multinational Employers for Working Spouses (MEWS), and on the Secretariat of the Executive Working Group on Global Mobility Policies.

Rebecca Peters is the Director and Counsel for Legislative Affairs of American Council on International Personnel.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.