I’ll try to remain politically neutral with this story. One of the great incongruities of the current immigration debate in the U.S. is that we are arguing about millions of relatively uneducated illegal immigrants. Some say they do jobs that others wouldn’t take, some say that’s hogwash. Some say they should wait their place in line like everyone else, some say we need a guest worker program. On rare occasions we even discuss how they impact average wage statistics, health care statistics, and the like. Other countries, notably including Mexico, have far more restrictive policies, and countries like Australia attempt to match immigration with skill needs through a point system.
But the debate over knowledge worker immigrants, even temporary immigrants, gets far less press. The CEI blog reprinted a letter to The Financial Times regarding this problem.
In its desire to reduce immigration, the US government has prevented the importation of brilliant minds. H-1B visas, three-year work visas which companies use to sponsor foreign workers, are limited to 65,000 per year. In April 2007, on the first day companies could apply for such visas the government was swamped by 133,000 applications. If the US government wants the quality of specialised immigrants to remain high, we must offer more H-1B visas to foreign skilled labour.
This is a real problem, as Microsoft is experiencing.
Chairman Bill Gates took one of his company’s most nettlesome issues to Washington. Testifying before the Senate, Gates criticized U.S. immigration policy for limiting the H-1B visas issued to skilled workers from foreign countries, workers that Microsoft would desperately like to hire. "It makes no sense to tell well-trained, highly skilled individuals—many of whom are educated at our top universities—that the U.S. does not welcome or value them," Gates told the lawmakers. Senators ignored his pleas, leaving the visa policy unchanged.
But Microsoft is also doing something about it, a luxury most companies don’t have.
So in September, Microsoft took matters into its own hands. It opened an office in Richmond, B.C., a polyglot Vancouver suburb, where it hopes to place hundreds of workers unable to obtain visas a few miles south in the U.S. The office won’t be filled only with those who can’t get visas. But for many, it’s akin to a refugee camp, except these displaced persons aren’t fleeing the U.S. They’re trying to get in.
Microsoft’s Richmond site is unique because it’s located just 130 miles north of the company’s Redmond (Wash.) headquarters, where 85% of its core software development is done. Placing workers in the same time zone helps them collaborate. And if they need face time in Redmond, it’s just a 2 1/2-hour drive on Interstate 5 over the Peace Arch border. It doesn’t hurt that Canada does not put limits on visas for skilled workers. The 125 engineers there now hail from 26 countries, ranging from England and China to Trinidad and Tobago. Says Parminder Singh, managing director of the new facility: "I call it the U.N. of tech."
I guess you could call this a government-forced outsourcing of knowledge and R&D. We are a nation of immigrants and should welcome an appropriate amount of influx of new talent and desire for a better life. But is turning away high-earning knowledge workers really the best policy?