International companies want visa reform in the United States

by Ray Clancy on October 18, 2011

US facing pressure from multinational firms

Multi national firms are complaining that American restrictions on work permits and delays and difficulties securing visas are preventing them from moving highly skilled workers to their US operations.

They are putting pressure on President Barack Obama to set aside his plan for a comprehensive overhaul of US immigration policies at the risk of angering key Hispanic voters and fix the system of work permits and green cards for the likes of engineers and programmers.

America can’t afford to let high skilled immigration reform remain attached to the controversies that surround comprehensive immigration reform more broadly, executives advising Obama on jobs and competitiveness said this week.

‘Given the challenges our economy now faces in a global age, we all need to rethink,’ the chief executives from GE, Boeing, DuPont and other firms said.

The US Chamber of Commerce also wants quick action on skilled workers because of Capitol Hill’s resistance to the sweeping deal sought by Obama that would address undocumented workers and border security at the same time.

‘I’m not sure you can do this whole thing in one great big bunch. We might have to do it a piece at a time. And this is the piece that we really ought to be able to get done in a big hurry,’ said Chamber president Thomas Donohue.

Even with 9.1% of Americans unemployed, there are thousands of vacancies in the US manufacturing sector because the US labour force lacks the engineering, computing and maths skills that companies need.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the cumbersome process to secure visas for top foreign graduates in the US has contributed to critical shortfalls in the software industry as well as electronics, pharmaceuticals and aerospace.

‘Turning these students out of the country is, to put it bluntly, about the dumbest thing that we could possibly do. We cannot afford to keep turning away those with skills that our country needs to grow and to succeed. It is sabotaging our own economy,’ he said.

The US caps H-1B skilled worker visas at 65,000 a year and often hits the maximum within months, leaving limited options for top skilled foreign graduates and experts.

And while it issues more than a million permanent residency green cards each year, only 15% are given for economic reasons to workers and their families, and those are subject to nationality quotas that pinch applicants from big countries.

Intel, whose chief executive officer Paul Otellini is a member of Obama’s jobs panel, learned in March that the annual cap had already been met for the permits it needed to move over the 50 engineers who previously had worked for Nokia.

The specialists now work in a new R&D centre in Helsinki, but Intel said it would have preferred to have them do their mobile computing research in its US facilities.

‘Intel’s research and development and manufacturing hub is in the United States. It is important to our business group managers to have the flexibility to move individuals with specialized technical expertise to the US to collaborate with existing Intel teams,’ said Intel’s staffing manager Idan Zu-Aretz.

Supporters of more skills based immigration point out that immigrants tend to create jobs because they are twice as likely as US born people to start their own companies and can help improve access to foreign export markets.

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