What the Presidential Contenders can Learn from our H-1B Visa Shortfall

By Gary Shapiro

Donald Trump’s attitude toward immigration is bizarre and troubling. He brags about gaming the H-1B system to bring in unqualified workers, yet his vacillation and shallowness on immigration is symptomatic of his entire campaign’s lack of substance on many of our nation’s biggest issues.

Trump has been back and forth — and back and forth again — on skilled immigration. Last summer, he released an immigration plan that opposes the H-1B program, arguing that it’s bad for American workers. But at a debate in Silicon Valley in October, Trump voiced support for the H-1B program, saying, “I am all in favor of keeping these talented people here so they can go to work in Silicon Valley.”

At a March 3 debate in Detroit, he said his views on H-1B were “changing.” A few days later, his campaign reversed course once more. “I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap-labor program and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions,” Trump wrote in a statement.

Less than two weeks later, at a March 15 GOP debate in Miami, said he would continue to “take advantage” of the current system to hire cheap labor.

Trump’s allegation that high-skill immigration and the H-1B system lower wages and steal jobs from American workers fails the Pinocchio test. The fact is that most companies participating in the H-1B program use it to hire the best global talent for engineering and other high-tech jobs only after they fail to find Americans to fill those positions.

In one sense, Trump is correct about the state of our immigration system: To help our economy, the H-1B system needs reform. Sadly, he’s completely wrong about what the necessary reforms are.

The current system sets an artificially low cap on the number of high-tech workers we let into this country. Need proof? Look at how quickly the fiscal 2017 H-1B visa petitions maxed out. On April 7, just five business days after the filing period opened, the federal government reached its cap of 85,000 applications. And this is consistent with what we’ve seen in previous years. Last year alone, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received 233,000 total applications.

People like Trump may be eroding the system, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up on the H-1B program altogether. Why get rid of a program that creates jobs? Smaller businesses create seven jobs for every H-1B visa holder on payroll. For this job growth to continue, our next president — regardless of party affiliation — must support policies that unleash our global competiveness. He or she should start by lifting the cap on our H-1B visa program, while also addressing abuses to ensure that the best talent from around the world can work for American companies and start businesses here in the U.S.

The current visa cap costs the U.S. an estimated 500,000 jobs a year. We need to increase the number of high-skilled visas, based on demand, and to create a “startup visa” category for foreign entrepreneurs and investors. Every foreign-born graduate with an advanced STEM degree is associated with, on average, 2.6 jobs for American workers.

Immigration reform does not mean conflating immigration with national security and building walls. And H-1B visas aren’t about “flying in cheaper workers from overseas,” as Trump suggests. In fact, engineers in the U.S. on H-1B visas earn 9.8 percent more than the national average for engineers. And wage increases for foreign-born STEM workers have been shown to boost wages for native-born, college-educated workers in the same cities.

Our H-1B program strengthens the U.S. economy. Lifting the cap to meet market demand benefits everyone.

President Obama has pushed minor, incremental visa improvements. While helpful, they’re not nearly enough to support our tech economy and create new jobs. We need a president focused on innovation-friendly policies, not brazen wall-building — someone who will make reforming our immigration system a priority.

High-skilled immigrants do much more than fill job vacancies in technical fields. They contribute to the U.S. economy in concrete, quantifiable ways, bettering our employment situation for everyone.

Republicans and Democrats can rally behind this simple principle that foreign-born talent means big business. And policymakers can start by reforming the H-1B visa program, starting with raising that arbitrarily low numerical cap. U.S. tech companies must be able to attract and hire the best and brightest in order to continue to innovate, drive our economy and ensure that technology continues to change our lives for the better.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)™, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books,Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter:@GaryShapiro