I often hear from business owners that current immigration policies are affecting their bottom line. And as head of the North Texas Commission, an organization dedicated to advancing the region, that’s the last thing I want to hear.
North Texas has one of the most diverse economies in the state with trade, transportation, utilities, hospitality and health services making up some of our fastest-growing industries. In fact, our job growth is more than double the national rate at 3.6%.
I want our region to stay on this impressive upward trajectory, but unfair immigration policies are hurting growth and need reform. Luckily, Congress is considering a bill that addresses this issue. The bipartisan Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act gives American businesses the freedom to hire and retain the skilled workers they need by eliminating the per-country cap for employment-based green card applications. The House passed its version of the act on Wednesday and I hope the Senate is not far behind.
As it stands now, only 7% of green cards can go to citizens of any single country each year, which means to apply for permanent residency, many applicants face a decade-long wait. And the wait for some applicants from India, where demand is high, is more than a century, according to the Cato Institute.
At the same time, the H1-B visas granted to high-skilled workers expire after six years. To stay, workers on these visas must re-enter a highly competitive lottery, meaning that companies are constantly at risk of losing some of their best employees — if companies are even lucky enough to win lottery slots for would-be employees in the first place.
Without a better system, North Texas could fall behind, especially in the tech sector. Many of our tech-sector companies depend on foreign professionals who graduate with critical science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, degrees from U.S. universities to fill specific high-skilled positions. There are simply not enough science and tech workers to go around: For every unemployed STEM worker in Texas, 13.4 STEM jobs are advertised online, according to New American Economy. And in Dallas alone, immigrants make up 23.9% of STEM workers. If we send these workers home, it means we’re losing their talents and innovation. We’re using resources to educate them but then missing out on the economic payoff of adding them to the local workforce.
Our 15 North Texas congressional members understand this. They know that a workforce pipeline is critical to filling future jobs. The percentage of Texans who are 55 or older is expected to reach 25% by 2020, up from 17.6% in 2000, according to the Texas Workforce Investment Council. We’ll need more nursing homes, health care workers and services as these baby boomers age. Immigrants make up 18.7% of the population in North Texas, but they represent 24.4% of its working-age population, according to New American Economy. These workers are key to maintaining growth in our region.
Access to qualified workers is one of the most important factors to a company’s success and our state’s biggest challenge. Let’s urge the Senate to pass the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act, a bill co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, to keep businesses competitive and our economy growing.
Chris Wallace is chief executive of North Texas Commission. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.