Tech groups ask for a variety of skilled immigration changes

Some groups call for green card reform, some for entrepreneur visas, some for many reforms

The U.S. Congress needs to fix skilled immigration programs by encouraging talented immigrants to permanently move to the country, a group of witnesses told a congressional subcommittee.

The U.S. is driving away foreign-born entrepreneurs while other countries are recruiting them, said Deepak Kamra, general partner at venture capital firm Canaan Partners. Kamra, a native of India, called on Congress to create a new startup visa program focused on immigrant entrepreneurs, in addition to the existing H-1B program, a temporary visa program bringing foreign workers to established companies.

"America is at high risk for losing immigrant entrepreneurs to foreign countries," he told the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee Tuesday. "Our legal immigration policies have essentially sent a message to these talented people that we do not want them here."

Ten years ago, the U.S. was the "only choice" for immigrant entrepreneurs, he added. "It is now become one of many choices," Kamra said.

Several subcommittee members voiced support for changes in U.S. skilled immigration policies, although there wasn't broad agreement on what needs to be done. While some lawmakers called for changes to skilled immigration apart from the broader immigration reform debate in the U.S., Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, called on the U.S. tech industry to support comprehensive immigration reform.

The tech industry is "part of an immigrant family," he said. "Your industry is in. Could you please help us so that other sectors of our society are in, too?"

But skilled immigration is "not the same problem" as the contentious debate in the U.S. about illegal immigration, said Bruce Morrison, representing the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA.

Morrison urged lawmakers to focus on reforming the green card program, a visa program allowing immigrants to take up permanent residence in the U.S. The U.S. needs more green card visas, and Congress should work to reduce a multiyear backlog of about 500,000 applicants, he said.

Congress should focus on the green card program instead of the H-1B program focused on temporary residence, he said, because green cards can help talented foreign graduates of U.S. colleges stay in the country permanently. Proposals to significantly increase the number of H-1B visas each year would benefit outsourcing companies that use that program, he said.

"We believe that the best way to create and keep jobs in America is to empower American employers to use green cards to hire the skilled foreign [science and tech] graduates they need from our schools," he said.

Congress should increase the number of green cards and the number of H-1B visas, and it should create an entrepreneur visa program, countered Dean Garfield, president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, a tech trade group.

The number of green cards issued in the U.S. has remained unchanged since 1990, and the H-1B program has seen only a "modest" increase since then, Garfield said.

"We're here for one simple reason: Our skilled immigration system is broken and does not serve our national interest," he said. "Our economy depends on an immigration system that was assembled nearly a quarter of a century ago. Does anyone here drive a car, operate a computer, or talk on a cellphone manufactured in, but not repaired or upgraded, since 1990?"

Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the full Judiciary Committee, suggested that green card and H-1B should happen together, with the programs complementing each other better. Goodlatte suggested that U.S. companies may offer foreign workers a "tryout" under the H-1B program before helping them with a green card.

Although witnesses and lawmakers floated a range of ideas about skilled immigration reform, Congress may be headed in the right direction, said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and sponsor of an entrepreneur visa bill in 2011. Lofgren said she has "an increased sense of optimism" that Congress will move forward on skilled immigration reform.

U.S. immigration policy is turning away foreign graduates of U.S. colleges and entrepreneurs, she said. "The result has been a reverse brain drain," Lofgren said. "And it is not good for our country."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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