By Esther Surden for New Jersey Tech Weekly
N.J. tech companies that need to hire highly skilled technical workers with job expertise not found in the U.S. are suffering from outdated, bureaucratic and restrictive immigration policies and procedures, according to speakers at a conference sponsored by Einstein’s Alley, a private, nonprofit economic development initiative located in central New Jersey, and the Partnership for a New American Economy.
The meeting — which took place at the Institute of Advanced Study (Princeton) on June 26, 2012 — couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous time, with immigration policy making headlines in June, said Louis Wagman, who was standing in for Katherine Kish, Einstein’s Alley executive director. However, we don’t tend to talk enough about the effect immigration policy has on America’s competitiveness and job creation, he added.
Entitled “The Innovation Bridge: Enhancing American Competitiveness and Job Creation Through Smart Immigration,” the meeting provided an in-depth look at the immigration crisis facing companies from the viewpoint of the Brookings Institution (Washington, D.C.), New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office, some N.J. immigration attorneys, Rutgers Eagleton Program on Immigration and Democracy representatives, a N.J. tech company, a N.J. life sciences firm and Princeton University.
The Institute of Advanced Study itself had founding members who were immigrants, many of them refugees from Nazi Germany, participants noted. And, said Peter Goddard, former director of the Institute, 68 percent of the current permanent faculty, made up of 28 permanent professors, are from abroad. Of course, the recruitment of Albert Einstein himself to conduct research at the Institute was an example of smart immigration, Goddard said.
Robert Feldstein, a senior advisor to Mayor Bloomberg who works with the Partnership for a New American Economy, said immigration is fundamentally an economic issue. “There are immigration reforms we could do today that would grow the economy and create American jobs,” he said. He pointed out that 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants.
Speaking about immigration reform, Darrell West, vice president and governance studies director at the Brookings Institution, said he had learned about immigration problems firsthand while helping his wife obtain a green card and become a naturalized citizen.
“I discovered many immigration offices are located in remote suburban areas that are hard to find and inaccessible by mass transit. … that our application process is paper-based and not electronic. … The digital revolution has not hit the immigration system,” West said.
“I cannot count the number of hours I spent at a photocopy machine copying documents, sending them to the government, waiting weeks and months for a mailed response. It’s a very costly and inefficient system,” West added. He said it is very easy to send in the wrong form and provide incorrect documentation.
The big problem in the immigration conversation: people perceive the costs as being quite high and the benefits quite low, especially during times of high unemployment. The argument is that we don’t need immigrants when Americans can’t find jobs, West noted.
“What people don’t realize is that even in times of high unemployment we actually have worker shortages in many fields, which constrains competitiveness and growth.” This is familiar in information technology, where Microsoft, for example, has reported it has almost 5,000 unfilled positions and has had difficulty hiring scientists and engineers, he said.
The high-tech industry has especially benefited from immigration. “Intel was founded by a Hungarian immigrant, Google was cofounded by a Russian immigrant, Yahoo was established by someone born in Taiwan and eBay was started by someone born in France. … What would the American economy look like today if Intel were a Hungarian company, Google were based in Russia, Yahoo were a Taiwanese company and eBay were French? Obviously our economy would look much weaker,” West said.
Addressing the issue of reform, West said one idea embraced by Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Karl Rove is to provide automatic green cards for graduates of American science and technology Ph.D. programs.
Other actions that should be taken, he said, include raising H-1B visa caps, which are now limited to 65,000 people. “Typically companies exhaust those visas within two to three months each year. At the start of the year they start filing for those visas, which are gone within a very short period of time. There is then a nine- to ten-month period where there are no visas available.”
“We also need to promote entrepreneur visas” allowing foreigners to obtain them if they build businesses that create jobs,West said. “From my standpoint, this is a no-brainer. Foreign residents will have to put money on the table; they have to come here, establish the business and then create the jobs. Then, after they do, they get the green card.” A similar program exists for those willing to risk venture capital, he added.
Esther Surden is the editor & publisher of NJTechWeekly.com. She is a veteran journalist who has written about the business of technology as well as how technology works for more than 30 years.