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March 20, 2007

Bill Gates testimony at the U.S. Congress

Attracting and retaining the world’s best and brightest

For generations, America has prospered largely by attracting the world’s best and brightest to study, live and work in the United States. Our success at attracting the greatest talent has helped us become a global innovation leader, enriched our culture and created economic opportunities for all Americans.

Unfortunately, America’s immigration policies are driving away the world’s best and brightest precisely when we need them most. I appreciate the vital national security goals that motivate many of these policies. I am convinced, however, that we can protect our national security in ways that do less damage to our competitiveness and prosperity. Moreover, the terrible shortfall in our visa supply for the highly skilled stems not from security concerns, but from visa policies that have not been updated in over a decade and a half. We live in a different economy now. Simply put: It makes no sense to tell well-trained, highly skilled individuals — many of whom are educated at our top colleges and universities — that the United States does not welcome or value them. For too many foreign students and professionals, however, our immigration policies send precisely this message.

This should be deeply troubling to us, both in human terms and in terms of our own economic self-interest. America will find it infinitely more difficult to maintain its technological leadership if it shuts out the very people who are most able to help us compete. Other nations are recognizing and benefiting from this situation. They are crafting their immigration policies to attract highly talented students and professionals who would otherwise study, live and work here. Our lost opportunities are their gains.

I personally witness the ill effects of these policies on an almost daily basis at Microsoft. Under the current system, the number of H-1B visas available runs out faster and faster each year. The current base cap of 65,000 is arbitrarily set and bears no relation to U.S. industry’s demand for skilled professionals. For fiscal year 2007, the supply did not last even eight weeks into the filing period, and ran out more than four months before that fiscal year even began.
For fiscal year 2008, H-1Bs are expected to run out next month, the first month that it is possible to apply for them. This means that no new H-1B visas — often the only visa category available to recruit critically needed professional workers — will be available for a nearly 18-month period. Moreover, this year, for the first time in the history of the program, the supply will run out before the year’s graduating students get their degrees. This means that U.S. employers will not be able to get H-1B visas for an entire crop of U.S. graduates. We are essentially asking top talent to leave the U.S.
As with H-1B visas, the demand for green cards far exceeds the supply. Today, only 140,000 permanent employment-based visas are available each year, which must cover both key employees and their family members. There is a massive backlog in many of the employment-based green card categories, and wait times routinely reach five years. Ironically, waiting periods are even longer for nationals of India and China — the very countries that are key recruiting grounds for the professionals desperately needed in many innovative fields.

In the past, we have succeeded in attracting the world’s best and brightest to study and work in the United States, and we can and must do it again. We must move beyond the debate about numbers, quotas and caps. Rather, I urge Congress to ask, “How do we create a system that supports and sustains the innovation that drives American growth, economic opportunity and prosperity?” Congress can answer that question by acting immediately in two significant ways.

First, we need to encourage the best students from abroad to enroll in our colleges and universities, and to remain in the United States when their studies are completed. Today, we take exactly the opposite approach. Foreign students who apply for a student visa to the United States today must prove that they do not intend to remain here once they receive their degrees. This makes no sense. If we are going to invest in educating foreign students — which we should and must continue to do — why drive them away just when this investment starts to pay off for the American economy?

Barring high-skilled immigrants from entry to the U.S., and forcing the ones that are here to leave because they cannot obtain a visa, ultimately forces U.S. employers to shift development work and other critical projects offshore. This can also force U.S. companies to fill related management, design and business positions with foreign workers, thereby causing further lost U.S. job opportunities even in areas where America is strong, allowing other countries to “bootstrap” themselves into these areas, and further weakening our global competitive strength. If we can retain these research projects in the United States, by contrast, we can stimulate domestic job and economic growth. In short, where innovation and innovators go, jobs are soon to follow.

Second, Congress should expedite the path to permanent resident status for highly skilled workers. The reality for Microsoft and many other U.S. employers is that the H-1B visa program is temporary only in the sense that it is the visa we use while working assiduously to make our H-1B hires — whether educated in the U.S. or abroad — permanent U.S. residents. Rather than pretend that we want these highly skilled, well-trained innovators to remain for only a temporary period, we should accept and indeed embrace the fact that we want them to become permanent U.S. residents so that they can drive innovation and economic growth alongside America’s native born talent.

These reforms do not pit U.S. workers against those foreign born. They do not seek to make or perpetuate distinctions among the best and brightest on the basis of national origin. They simply recognize the fact that America’s need for highly skilled workers has never been greater, and that broad-based prosperity in America depends on having enough such workers to satisfy our demand. Far from displacing U.S. workers, highly skilled, foreign-born workers will continue to function as they always have: as net job creators.

Posted by VisaLawyer at March 20, 2007 07:57 AM

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