A Solution to America’s H1B Visa Impasse

  • H1B Visa policy is at an impasse: US is not innovating and companies are going offshore in droves
  • O’Canada and Australia have tested programs we can emulate
  • Solution: Give more H1B visas for technical jobs in rural America
  • Win-Win: Tech companies get more visas, rural America gets more jobs

Just a few years back, Paul Graham led a group of venture capitalists to push for more H1B visas by writing an undiplomatic article (http://paulgraham.com/95.html) claiming America produces no great minds and that engineers cannot be trained. The tactic failed. After a flurry of activity, the federal government has made little movement on the H1B visa issue. American venture capitalists and corporate CEOs have given up. Rather than trying to bring more skilled workers here, they invest in other countries.

Many argue that immigration takes American jobs, rather than create them. Clinton wants to triple H1B visas while her likely running mate, Sanders, wants to eliminate them. We have reached an impasse.

Everyone working in a tech company knows we cannot get enough people to make our products. All companies, not just Google and Microsoft, look offshore for resources. Some even open a second, third or fourth development center in remote city in India before planning to expand into rural America. The lack of investment and innovation outside of key technology hubs in the U.S. is leaving the rest behind. But we can solve these problems.

Canada and Australia have implemented successful skilled-labor programs America can learn from. They distribute immigrants outside major hubs and offer startup visas. As a result, net new jobs are created. A solution like this can appease tech leaders and politicians alike.

Canada lets provinces recruit immigrants based on local needs. An immigrant can receive a visa for Canada via the Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP) — akin to the H1B Visa program — or via the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). A province can nominate a person for a visa based on its current regional needs. While the FSWP admits long-term highly skilled professionals, the PNP generally admits shorter-term migrants for specific occupations. The PNP is more responsive and time sensitive than that of the FSWP.

This program works. According to Immigrate Canada statistics, in 2009 nearly 75% of immigrants — 13,500 — came to Manitoba via the PNP. In 2012, the immigrant population increased to 40,000 — quite substantial in a population of only 1.2 million people.

Australia has a similar program called the 489 provisional visa. It allows skilled immigrants to live in specific regions of need or low population growth for up to 4 years. Each state and territory government publishes a list of occupations in short supply in their area, and then the government grants a number of additional visas. Immigrants receiving visas are required to live there for at least two years before applying to relocate in Australia.

Most interestingly, there is no cap on the number of visas that can be requested by a region in either Canada or Australia. By showing credible need for the visas, local regions can bring in as many people as needed. This may never happen in America, but it demonstrates that more visas will not limit an economy, only advance it.

These programs serve as a framework for American policy makers to attract skilled immigrants to rural areas. Companies like Apple and Google would open up offices in rural America — say Tennessee — and apply for regional visas to support these operations. In turn, they would also employ more local citizens and create jobs there. And if the naysayers still argue this does not create new jobs. The government could institute a 1:1 new hiring policy — for every local hired, the government grants one new visa.

Canada goes one step further for its startup community. It offers a startup visa for immigrants who raised $75,000 from angel investors or $200,000 from venture capital. A similar act was introduced in the Senate in both 2011 and 2013 but both times it failed. President Obama said that while he supports skilled labor, it has to be part of a broader immigration program, citing both illegal and legal immigration

Any policy attempting to cover both illegal and legal immigration must drive politicians to wits end. The two issues address opposite ends of the economic spectrum. H1B visas create white-collar jobs while illegal immigration often fulfills our blue-collar jobs. Dear Prez, please solve one problem at a time.

But an answer for skilled legal immigration may be the combination of a regional and startup visa program. Give Google, Apple, and Facebook more visas if they hire in mainland America. Grant immigrants startup visas if they are willing to build companies — and create jobs — in rural areas. Venture capitalists would get many more opportunities to invest. American companies can hire more in America and closer to their headquarters — which their engineering teams would prefer. America at large would create more companies and jobs.

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