It has been stated frequently over the past few years that the global competiveness of the United States depends in substantial measure on our ability to attract and retain the best talent internationally. This includes keeping the foreign students who have been educated in U.S. universities.

According to a report by Deloitte University Press published this month, we may be losing this talent to other countries. The report provides a survey which indicates that in 2010 we were eighth in the world in the percentage of highly educated individuals among foreign born populations.  Among the countries with higher percentages are Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.  We are competing for badly needed innovative talent which is important to our economy if we are to maintain our position as the world’s leading nation.

Many of these foreign nationals work here under H-1B visas.  The truth is that for the most part, the skills these workers bring to our economy augment rather than compete with the skills of U.S. professionals.

While the promise of increased H-1B numbers in the Senate’s immigration reform bill, S. 744, is positive, some of the restrictive provisions would render the increased numbers ultimately ineffective in obtaining the talent that we need.  For example, an amended required wage structure would require unrealistic salary levels for talented, entry level graduates of U.S. schools.  A distorted wage system, which will create an inflated rather than prevailing wage, would put businesses in a difficult position of paying foreign workers more than their U.S. worker counterparts. Another provision, adding to yet more bureaucracy, is a proposed recruitment process to be designed by the Department of Labor.

The H-1B visa has been grossly misrepresented in some quarters as being a program which takes jobs from U.S. workers.  The truth is that foreign talent, especially those educated in our country’s graduate programs, only enhance the job prospects of Americans.  Much has been documented about these job creators.  According to an October 2012 report by the Kaufman Foundation, twenty four percent of engineering and technology companies founded between 2006 and 2012 has at least one foreign born founder.  This figure rises to 43.9% when the survey is limited to the Silicon Valley.  In 2012, these companies were responsible for approximately 560,000 jobs and $63 billion in sales.

In reality, if we want to continue as a leader in this competitive, global economy, we need to facilitate rather than inhibit visas for the talented foreign born who want to build their careers and lives in the U.S.  Many educators legitimately say that we need to examine revamping the U.S. primary and secondary educational system to include some of these skills.  But we can’t wait for our domestic population to provide us with enough of these needed workers if we want to maintain our global competitiveness.

We badly need a comprehensive immigration reform package to provide a path for the 11 million paperless immigrants, secure our borders and provide a reasonable temporary worker program for lesser skilled workers. But it would be a tragedy if this package created unworkable and unnecessary burdens on the ability of the U.S. to provide visas to essential global talent.

Written by Deborah J. Notkin, Chair, AILA Media-Advocacy Committee