Linda Chavez

Can the federal government adequately predict exactly how many mathematicians, engineers, biochemists, and inventors the United States will need twenty years in the future? I doubt many of us would answer yes. Yet, federal immigration policy does exactly that in allotting work visas for highly skilled employees.

Most of the debate over immigration has centered on low-skilled workers, especially the large population of illegal immigrants who have entered the country over the last two decades. But our legal immigration system is dysfunctional as well. The system primarily focuses on re-uniting foreign-born relatives with family members who are already here, paying little attention to what's good for our economy and what will benefit Americans by creating more jobs and wealth for all of us.

Congress tried to fix the problem in 1990 when it established special visas for highly skilled workers and researchers, professors and others of outstanding abilities. But the law set the limit of visas available to 140,000 -- which included those for family members of those admitted. Worse, it applied the same absolute quotas on populous countries like China and India as it did on tiny countries like Luxembourg.

Wait times to obtain employment visas for professionals from India and China can already be eight years or more. To be eligible for these visas, applicants must already have a job offer. How many employers are willing to extend an offer eight years down the road? Only government bureaucrats have the hubris to imagine they can predict future needs with such clarity.

And the problem is even worse for some categories of employment-based visas. Workers from India defined as professionals and skilled workers can face a 70-year wait! And Chinese workers in these categories face up to 20 years before obtaining a visa. The state department has already advised employers and applicants for visas that quotas for those with advanced degrees will run out in July.

The problem is especially acute for foreign students graduating from American universities with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), according to a new study by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP).

As the study points out, although some of these graduates can get extensions on their temporary visas to allow them to stay in the United States, many end up having to leave -- taking their highly valuable skills earned at American universities with them.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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