Editor’s note: Steve S. Rao is a council member and former Mayor Pro Tem of Morrisville. He also serves on the Board of the New American Economy, a bi partisan coalition of Mayors and Business Leaders Committed to Comprehensive Immigration Reform. 

MORRISVILLE – The Biden administration’s first few months brought big changes on immigration policy, including the revocation of the Muslim travel ban; a push for citizenship for undocumented workers; and serious efforts to address the border crisis. Most impressively, the House passed the Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers, and give guest-worker status to undocumented farm laborers.

Photo courtesy of Steve Rao

John Chambers, left, with Steve Rao

But as an amicus brief filed last week by Google makes clear, it will take more than just action for Dreamers and farmworkers to put our immigration system back on track. Along with tech giants such as Apple, Amazon, and Intel, Google is opposing a legal push to bar spouses of skilled workers on H1B visas from gaining lawful employment — a move that would impact at least 90,000 spouses of skilled workers, about 90% of whom are women.

The stakes are high, and not just for tech companies that would struggle to hire skilled workers if their spouses were barred from working. Banning these highly educated workers from using their talents would hurt our entire economy, lowering GDP by around $7.5 billion per year, and robbing the federal government of $1.9 billion in tax revenues.

Venture capital group: International Entrepreneur Rule will spur job creation, innovation

That’s a reminder of the stakes as we discuss skilled immigration. Here in the Research Triangle, employers are struggling to hire the skilled workers needed to fuel our innovation economy. Increasingly, immigrants are needed to plug the skills gap. In the Raleigh area almost a quarter of immigrants hold a graduate degree, compared to less than a sixth of the native-born population. Statewide, according to New American Economy, immigrants make up more than 18% of our workforce in science, technology, and engineering-related (STEM) fields. In some technical fields the rates are far higher: 35% of our software developers were born overseas, for instance.

With a dearth of skilled Americans, seven of the 10 fastest growing occupations where employers requested high-skilled worker visas were computer-related, according to a forthcoming study from NAE and Envoy Global. But while these immigrants bring vital skills, we aren’t doing enough to support them. The row over work visas for H1B workers’ spouses is just the tip of the iceberg: increasingly, it’s growing apparent that the skilled-worker visa system is badly broken in ways that put our economy at risk.

The problem reached crisis levels when the Trump administration stopped issuing skilled-worker visas entirely. Sensibly, the Biden administration allowed that policy to lapse — but far more work is still needed to attract the skilled workers needed to fuel economic growth.

At present, for instance, H1B visa holders often find themselves stuck in limbo due to rules that limit the number of green cards issued to residents of particular countries. That leads to engineers, computer scientists, and doctors from populous places such as India getting stuck on temporary visas for decades. In fact, it’s now estimated that 200,000 skilled Indian-born immigrants will die of old age before receiving green cards.

Such policies are especially unfair to the foreign-born doctors and nurses who make up 7.3% of our healthcare workforce. Temporary work visas are only valid while you’re actively employed, so without green cards, frontline doctors and nurses who contract COVID could be deported simply for taking sick leave. Our healthcare professionals deserve better, and lawmakers should move swiftly to give them a streamlined pathway to permanent status.

I know first-hand how important it is to allow skilled workers to put down roots. My parents came here from India so that my father could work as a rural surgeon. Because they were given a chance to build lives here, thousands of patients received quality healthcare — and I grew up as a proud American, dedicated myself to serving our community, and became our state’s first Asian American elected official.

Fortunately, change is on the horizon. Earlier this year, the Biden administration proposed the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which would eliminate the country cap and increase the number of green cards issued. Other recent legislation would set aside 40,000 unused green cards for immigrant healthcare workers. And the Biden administration is also resurrecting the Obama-era International Entrepreneur Rule (IER) to grant visas to startup founders who create jobs and raise U.S. seed capital, a move which will ensure that the next Google, Yahoo. SAS, Red Hat, Tesla, Zoom, Slack and other start ups will be founded in the United States (North Carolina) and not other parts of the world.

Such measures will drive economic growth for everyone, but it will take a bipartisan legislative effort to make them a reality. President Biden has urged lawmakers to come together to help the Dreamers and farmworkers. But we also need legislative action to support skilled workers, and to give employers access to the talented employees they need to fuel their growth. That’s why I’m urging Sens. Burr and Tillis to help pass the Dream and Promise Act and the FWMA — and then to start working on solutions for the skilled immigrants who fuel our state’s economy.

About the author

Steve S. Rao is a council member and former Mayor Pro Tem of Morrisville NC.  He also serves on the Board of the New American Economy, a bi partisan coalition of Mayors and Business Leaders Committed to Comprehensive Immigration Reform.    He serves as Of Counsel, to State Federal Strategies,  government relations firm.