Washington, can we at least have more visas?

From the pages of In Business magazine.

About this time last year, we reported about how congressional inaction on immigration reform is harming businesses. We wish we could say that things are different today.

While the two political parties, and the states and the feds, wrangle in court over the constitutional validity of President Obama’s executive order on undocumented workers, the chances for comprehensive immigration reform are about as strong as Gov. Scott Walker getting an honorary degree from the University of Wisconsin. But since there are many provisions in comprehensive reform legislation that could be spun out as stand-alone bills and gain bipartisan support, how about some piecemeal reform that would at least help the business community?

Congress and the Prez could start by expanding the number of H1-B visas. Universities are not limited in the number of foreign students they can enroll with non-immigrant student visas, but American companies are limited in the number of foreign graduates they can hire. As we reported last year, the annual cap on H1-B visas is set at 85,000 workers (including 20,000 with master’s or higher degrees), and it accommodates just 65% of the 130,000 H-1B petitions filed on an annual basis. Under one bill that stalled in Congress, the H-1B cap would increase to between 110,000 and 180,000, depending on economic need.

If American technology companies could find enough American workers with the skills they need, they wouldn’t have to go through the time and legal expense associated with pursuing these visas.

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That expense can run several thousand dollars for one hire, so until we can convince more young people, especially women and minorities, to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, employers will need outside help.

Yet they wait in limbo as Washington plays games. That’s especially true in university communities like Madison, where the UW-Madison is a temporary home to more than 4,000 international students. Instead of putting their skills to work for local employers upon graduation, too many leave the country because of the existing legal framework.

Given the paralysis evident in the nation’s capital, we probably shouldn’t expect a whole loaf, but it would be nice if the “powers that be” could send us a few crumbs once in a while. We’re breaking our necks keeping this economy afloat. How about a little help

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