U.S. competitiveness tied to solving immigration problems

President Barack Obama is expected to announce momentous decisions soon on the use of executive authority to help the more than 60,000 children fleeing Central American violence who have crossed into Texas, and an equal number of families currently being held at the border.

While Congress has stalled on immigration reform, the president should act to stay deportations of these kids and families at a minimum, while extending temporary protected status to as many undocumented immigrants as he legally can. In fact, my view is that Obama ought to “go big” and address as many of our immigration problems as possible. In so doing, he must not ignore the economic crisis we are facing as we lose ground to our global competitors.

American competitiveness is at risk as our rivals around the world poach skilled immigrants by offering an easier path to work visas. Our friends in Canada are spending millions of dollars to help skilled foreign workers find jobs, particularly in their energy sector, an area so crucial to Houston’s economic success. Germany has streamlined its own work permit process, citing a need for up to one million jobs in science, technology and engineering by 2020.

If the Germans or Canadians offer a better deal, Houston and other cities that need skilled workers may lose out on the best and brightest talent the world has to offer. Yet that is exactly what is happening. This past April, the U.S. rejected over half the qualified applicants seeking to live and work here, because of an 85,000 cap on H-1B visas dating back to 1990.

When the president issues executive orders, he should increase the number of skilled workers able to receive H-1B visas, including those with advanced degrees from U.S. colleges and universities. It makes no sense to educate hard-working individuals who want to stay here, and then simply send them packing because their number did not come up in the H-1B lottery.

The skilled worker shortage is more problematic in Houston than in most other major metropolitan areas, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. The report found that nearly half of Houston’s job openings require STEM skills, yet these jobs are going unfilled for much longer than other occupations. Houston is second only to Silicon Valley as a mecca for engineering-related jobs, whether in information technology, oil and gas, or other sectors, according to data compiled by the Greater Houston Partnership.

When he acts, the President should reject the politics of fear promoted by those – including some in my own party – who believe immigration is a zero-sum game, where every job filled by a foreign worker takes a job away from an American. This is unequivocally false. A study by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that had the U.S. accepted the H-1B applicants we rejected in 2007-2008, Houston could have created nearly 4,000 additional jobs for U.S.-born workers.

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About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…