Editorial: Visa proposal could bring talent to nation

Each year, Washington awards visas to immigrants who bring skills and qualifications prized by high-tech companies. This is an eminently sensible policy, since highly trained immigrants add greatly to the nation's stock of human capital and as a group, they have a high propensity to start companies of their own. That creates more jobs for Americans.

There's one problem. The number of these special visas, called H1-Bs, is too low — only 65,000, with 20,000 more awarded each year to foreign students with master's degrees or higher from a U.S. university.

Those numbers don't begin to meet demand from tech firms hungry for new talent. In 2009, the annual quota was filled in less than a week. The year before, all the H1-Bs were snatched up in a single day.

This means our world-class university system, supported to a great extent by tax dollars, is training thousands of smart foreign students, who then take those talents back home and start companies that compete with U.S. enterprises.

You can thank Congress for this because Congress caps the number of H1-Bs. But Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican, and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, have drafted a bill aimed at easing this bottleneck.

Their bill, called the Startup Act, would make it easier for new companies to raise financial capital by rolling back certain taxes, but its most significant provisions would greatly expand the number of visas available to foreign-born talent. It would authorize a new visa category for 50,000 foreign students who earn a master's degree or higher in a technical field — science, technology, engineering or math. A total of 75,000 additional visas would go to foreign-born entrepreneurs who register a new firm or raise $100,000 in capital while in the United States on another category of visa.

Moran says most of his colleagues probably agree that something needs to be done about the misguided bar on foreign-born talent. But sadly, immigration in general remains politically radioactive. The bill has only one other Senate co-sponsor: Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.

That's a shame. Immigration may be a divisive subject, but it is one of those topics in which the politics is lagging the facts on the ground.

Much of the concern about immigration, legal and illegal, is focused on Mexico. But our southern neighbor is changing rapidly.

It's growing much faster than the United States, creating opportunity for Mexicans who might otherwise be tempted to emigrate. Over the last four decades, its birth rate has plummeted from nearly 7 per woman to around 2. Arrests at the border have fallen off radically.

Some experts believe net immigration from Mexico has reached inconsequential levels, counting people who have returned to Mexico because of the sluggish U.S. economy. Douglas Massey of Princeton, founder of the Mexican Migration Project, told The Christian Science Monitor last month that his calculations suggest migration is now at "net zero."

That suggests immigration will someday fade as a hot-button dispute. For the present, however, it's still a touchy topic for any politician — which is why Moran and Warner deserve credit.

What's a mystery is why more of their colleagues aren't willing to sign onto a bill that will bring more technical and entrepreneurial talent to our country.

— The Kansas City Star

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