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High-Skilled and Low-Skilled Immigration Debate Clashes in Congressional Hearing

Emerging in the immigration debate has been tensions between the high-skilled vs. low-skilled immigrants, and by extension, the issue of family immigration. The topic was more passionately broached in January’s House Judiciary Committee hearing last February, but highlighted again in today’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security hearing entitled “Enhancing American Competitiveness through Skilled Immigration.”  The following witnesses testified before Congress today:

  • Bruce Morrison, Chairman, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) USA
  • Dean Garfield, President/CEO, Information and Technology Industry Council
  • Deepak Karma, General Partner, Canaan Partner (venture capital firm)
  • Benjamin Johnson, Executive Director, American Immigration Council

The “Non-Debate” About High-Skilled Visas The witnesses provided opinions and facts to congressional members, most of which was uncontested.  Mr. Garfield provided a host of interesting statistics.

  • 25% of ventured-backed companies were started by immigrants;
  • 25% of new companies and businesses in 2011 were started by immigrants;
  • 76% of patents filed in the U.S. included immigrants as part of their research teams; and,
  • 40% of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants or children of immigrants (a statistic that was also raised by Steve Case in his previous testimony).

The entrepreneurial spirit in the U.S. is what ultimately triggers job creation.  The testimony today all supported the fact that immigrants coming to the U.S. who create companies are creating jobs for American workers.  Their presence here in the U.S. complements and does not compete with the American workforce. The likelihood that anybody in the room was still walking around with a cell phone from the 1990s was zero.  Yet, why, asked Mr. Garfield, does the U.S. still operate with an immigration system from the 1990s despite the fact that our economy has grown three times that size? The current immigration infrastructure, the low visa numbers (quotas) have hampered innovation.

In January 2013, Canada announced its own Start-Up Visas, modeled after the bill that many advocates had helped to draft in 2009 but failed to gain traction in Congress. The appeal was loud and clear: Congress must address the current visa back-log issues that high-skilled workers have endured for many years (even decades), and many times separated from their families while they wait.  More importantly, it needs to send a strong message that the high-skilled immigrant community is welcomed (and not excluded) to the U.S. The real challenge about this “non-issue” of easing the burdens to allow for more high-skilled workers into the country was the logistical management of the visa backlog.  Congress could create more visa numbers, or visa categories to specifically address entrepreneurs and STEM graduates.  Congress could impose a sliding-scale fee on employers filing for certain visas to help offset STEM educational.  Congress could consider the different needs of venture-backed or seed-funded start-ups when crafting requirements for those visa cohorts.

A Shift in Attitude with Low-Skilled Immigrants

More pronounced in this meeting was a plea to the high-skilled immigrant communities (and their advocates) that comprehensive immigration reform should be inclusive of all immigrant groups. There was none more vocal than Representative Luis Gutierrez, of Illinois.  Mr. Gutierrez, while earnest about his gratitude for the witnesses’ testimony, reminded them that it was wave of new voters who elected a president that supported immigration reform.  That it was the political currency of those voter groups that has ultimately championed comprehensive immigration reform.  That while the debate on how to increase or include high-skilled immigrants is necessary, it should be with consideration to reform the immigration system to include all other immigrant groups. Mr. Gutierrez analogized the current immigration debate to a debate about whether to keep one’s thumb or other fingers, when in fact, the entire hand is needed. This sentiment was also echoed by Benjamin Johnson of the American Immigration Council, stressing that the need for talent in the U.S. is not an isolated enterprise, but rather, should be an integral component for comprehensive immigration reform. (Hear more from Mr. Johnson during our webinar on CIR tomorrow.  Register here.)  As others had previously expressed, talent is found not only in the employment-based categories of immigrants, but also in the family-based categories.


It’s fascinating to hear new commentary from different perspectives in immigration.  No doubt this new perspective will likely gain momentum.  Do you think high-skilled immigrants should be given a priority over low-skilled immigrants when it comes to reforming the immigration system?  We’d love to hear your comments.