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Immigration reform should start with better policies for skilled workers

Posted on May 30, 2011
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Skilled Workers

“In India, business is easier. It’s cheaper to start something, things are growing here and, of course, you don’t have to deal with visa issues like in the U.S. But there are still benefits to moving to America. The infrastructure is better.”

The young Indian woman who told me this works for a television and film production company in New Delhi. She and her husband have master’s degrees, speak multiple languages fluently and are part of India’s flourishing upper middle class.

This conversation took place at a wedding in northern India last week. I ended up amidst a group of young Indian couples catching up on the latest in their lives and those of their families and friends. Their conversation was dominated by who was coming and going from India. Many of these young people had spent some time studying in the United Kingdom or U.S. and were now moving back home.

What I witnessed was an inside look at the global war for talent. Winning this competition is arguably as critical to America’s future as winning the global war on terror.

In the past, there was little question that the world’s best and brightest wanted to move to Western Europe and, especially, to America. But that equation is changing as the young Indian woman at the wedding so bluntly described.

She wasn’t joking about the infrastructure issues in India. In my travels around the country, I often had to wait, even in cities, for cows to amble across the road. But there was no denying that even in the more rural areas, buildings and businesses were going up everywhere, and I could always get cellphone reception.

The global recession hit America and Europe harder than it did the developing world. The economies in China and India are still booming, and the highly educated who understand the ways of their home countries and those of the West are in a prime position to profit.

The Economic Times, the Indian equivalent of The Wall Street Journal, ran a big spread on May 19 titled “Why entrepreneurs are dumping dollar dreams” with scenarios much like the ones I heard at the wedding. A big complaint is that the U.S. visa process is simply too cumbersome.

“I wanted the freedom to work on my ideas now, and not have to wait another five to seven years,” said Apar Sureka, who worked for several years at eBay before launching his first start-up in Silicon Valley. Frustrated with visa hassles, he moved back to New Delhi.

The anecdotes are backed up by statistics. There were 50 percent fewer petitions this year for the H-1B professional visa, America’s highly skilled migrant visa that many engineers and tech geeks utilize.

For years, America’s leading corporations such as Microsoft pushed the government to expand the numbers of H-1B visas (limited to 65,000 a year) and fast track the process, saying it is critical to the nation’s future success. Little was done.

The Kauffman Foundation, a U.S. think tank focused on entrepreneurship, put out a series of reports this year on the “reverse brain drain” trend. The bottom line is, “The rapid growth of the Chinese and Indian economies has created professional and entrepreneurial opportunities that didn’t exist in prior decades.”

President Barack Obama and Congress have put immigration back on the political agenda. But all the focus seems to be on the immigrants who come to America illegally and are mostly unskilled. There are plenty of issues to resolve about America’s illegal immigrants, but getting the visa and immigration process right at the other end — the skilled end — is just as important.

The graduates of America’s top Ph.D. programs in engineering, math, economics and hard sciences illustrate the case in point: more than half are students from foreign countries. When they graduate, they have to decide whether to stay in the U.S. or go back home. We should make it easier for them to stay.

The Economics Times article focused on a bipartisan proposal in Congress for a “start-up visa.” It would be an alternative to the H-1B with a lot more flexibility. Entrepreneurs aren’t usually sponsored by an established company, but the government should recognize their credentials, past experiences and ability to bring in capital.

In the global war on talent, the U.S. can no longer rely on its past laurels. If America wants to remain a top recruiter of the world’s best and brightest, we have to do damage control on the notion that our visas are too hard to come by and too inflexible for a 21st-century work world. Otherwise we will watch the next Group on and Google founded on other shores.

For more news and updates, assistance with your visa needs or for a Free Assessment of your profile for Immigration or Work Visa’s just visit www.y-axis.com

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