Written by: Warren Leiden, AILA Media-Advocacy Committee

One month ago, barely three weeks into the new federal fiscal year, the entire annual quota of temporary visas specially set aside for foreign national professionals with advanced degrees (at least a Master’s) was used up. And as of November 22, the entire year’s numerical cap on H-1B visas for all foreign national professionals has been reached. The exhaustion of these visas came earlier than it did during the last two fiscal years.

These visa requests require sponsorship by a U.S. employer eager to hire the individual, and sponsoring employers are required to pay the higher of a prevailing wage or the actual wage at the workplace and attest so in writing to the Department of Labor.

How can we Americans be so short-sighted as to block the lawful presence and talent of these highly skilled professionals, who are needed by U.S. employers? Particularly in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines, America is a competitor in a global competition for high skilled talent. These highly skilled professionals are inventors, innovators, and job-creators who can drive the growth of our economy, and yet we discourage them from coming to or staying in the United States with absurdly low annual quotas, and we make them feel unwelcome.

Stay in America? Yes, nearly 40% of the Master’s and PhD’s in STEM fields awarded by U.S. universities go to foreign students who have been here for years. When U.S. employers want to hire each year’s new crop of students graduating with advanced degrees in STEM, four out of ten will be foreign nationals. This reality has led commentators and Congress members to (only half-jokingly) suggest that a “green card” should be stapled to their diplomas. Most would like to stay and work in America, but the annual quota of visas runs out quickly, and why stay where you are not wanted?

And, permitting U.S. employers to sponsor highly skilled foreign professionals contributes to the education and training of U.S. workers. Every U.S. employer who sponsors an individual of the professionals’ visa must pay either $750 or $1500 (depending on the size of the employer) into a federal fund for the education and training of U.S. workers, providing over $125 million a year for this purpose.

This is another example of what Vivek Wadwha, tech entrepreneur turned academic, recently testified before a Congressional committee, saying the U.S. is “giving an unintentional gift to China and India by causing highly educated and skilled workers, frustrated by long waits for visas, to return home.”

It’s high time for Congress to wake up and help America and the U.S. economy by raising the outdated visa quota for highly skilled professionals. In the face of stiff global competition and our stuttering economy, we can’t afford to squander this opportunity.