Editor’s note: Steve S. Rao is a Council Member At Large and Former Mayor Pro Tem for the Town of Morrisville and an Opinion Writer for WRAL Tech Wire. He served on the Board of the New American Economy, now the American Immigration Council, and on the NC League of Municipalities Race and Equity Task Force. He is a regular contributing writer to WRAL TechWire.
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MORRISVILLE – When it comes to building a long-term professional future in America, there’s a simple rule. Those who can, do — and those who can’t, move to Canada.
That’s the lesson of Canada’s new push to recruit high-skilled workers. The program was aimed at highly skilled immigrants, working in the United States, on H-1B visas. Within two days of its opening, over 10,000 people applied. In fact, the program proved so popular, that Canadian officials had to pull the plug on their promotional campaign.
What makes Canada such an appealing option? Let’s be frank: It isn’t the weather or the cuisine. It certainly isn’t the quality of the employment and research opportunities. America is still the best place in the world to study, work, research and innovate. Educated immigrants long to work in vibrant tech hubs like Silicon Valley, Austin, or here in the Triangle; far fewer dream of spending their lives in Ottawa.
So why are so many people eager to head north? America relies on immigrants to power its innovation economy, and yet we make it incredibly difficult for these same immigrants to build a stable future here.
That’s true from the moment that newly minted, foreign-born graduates start looking for work. These folks comprise large percentages of math, engineering, and computer science departments; it’s part of the reason that almost one-fourth of all jobs in technical fields now go to foreign-born workers. But while we give new STEM graduates a few years of employment authorization, we make it almost impossible for many of them to transition from that temporary status onto H-1B visas.
There’s a literal lottery for H-1B visas — and only the winners are allowed to stay in this country. With over 780,000 applicants this year vying for just 85,000 visas, many people who’ve successfully completed degrees, played by the rules, and been hired by American tech companies are ultimately forced to leave the country.
And even if you win a visa in the H-1B lottery, your long-term footing isn’t much firmer. The H-1B program was designed to give highly educated workers a steppingstone to a a green card and eventual U.S. citizenship. For many of these people, that’s less the rule than the exception.
Country-based caps on the annual number of green cards mean that immigrants from populous nations like India and China can face a decades-long wait before they qualify. Right now, in fact, more than a million people remain stuck in the ever-lengthening line for a green card.
While they wait, H-1B holders are unable to put down real roots in our communities. Until recently, their spouses were barred from working, even though they, too, are typically highly educated and have skills that are urgently needed in our workforce.
Perhaps most cruelly of all, H-1B holders’ children are only permitted to stay in the United States until they turn 21 years old. Far too often, these “documented Dreamers” are raised in the United States from early childhood, but lose their status before their parents are able to obtain green cards for the family. Unless something changes, over 253,000 children will likely be forced to leave their parents behind and return to countries they barely remember.
This puts families in an impossible situation. Ask yourself: Would you rather live and work in the United States, knowing that you and your family could easily spend your entire lives in limbo. Or would you give up your American dreams and move to Canada, which has literally written welcome into its government policy?
Here in the Triangle, we’re rightly proud to have built an innovation ecosystem that attracts the world’s most talented young people. This benefits all of us: among other things, it’s estimated that for each H-1B visa that’s issued, American companies create 1.83 additional jobs for U.S.-born workers.
But that isn’t enough: we must also build a modern immigration system that can give skilled immigrants a real launchpad for their careers, and a meaningful chance to build a future in our community.
The American immigration system is so bad that many thousands of immigrants who’d dreamed of making it to America—and succeeded—recently decided that Canada was a more attractive option. If we want to keep attracting top talent—and then keep them here—our policies need a major overhaul. It’s time to reform the H-1B system, rethink the country caps system and finally build an immigration infrastructure capable of supporting our state’s America—and North Carolina’s–world-class innovation economy.