After six years since the last substantive debates over immigration reform, the Senate Judiciary Committee has begun hearings on the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, the title of the legislation born of the months-long work of the bipartisan Gang of Eight, which includes Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake.
The bill is recognition that we need to boost border security in certain areas and find a realistic and humane way to deal with the estimated 11 million individuals who are not in the country legally.
But the bill also offers desperately needed visa reforms at both the high-skilled and low-skilled ends of America's economy. The bill fills the shortage of high skilled workers by increasing the H1-B visa cap that fits our 21st century economy. As Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president for Microsoft, testified at a hearing, "The current system does not meet the needs of today's economy, and it must be reformed to enable ongoing innovation and economic growth."
Removes the numerical cap on green cards for researchers, scientists, PhDs and certain physicians;
Allocates 40 percent of employment-based visas to advanced degree-holders in critical areas and to individuals who have earned advanced degrees in the sciences from a U.S. university;
Increases to 40 percent the percentage of visas for skilled workers;
Creates a startup visa for foreign entrepreneurs who seek to emigrate to the United States to start up their own companies; and
Raises to 110,000 the cap on H-1B visas from the current 65,000, with the ability to go as high as 180,000.
Tech groups are enthused with the bill, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leading the charge for its passage with the formation of a nonprofit advocacy group called FWD.us. The group has a broad coalition of industry leaders, including the Arizona Chamber, which believes the time is now for developing an immigration system that meets both our security and economic needs.
When it comes to high-skilled workers, the numbers say it all. Fifty-seven percent of engineering graduate students are immigrants, and if the immigration system is left unchanged many of these students will be forced to leave the U.S., taking their knowledge and expertise with them to other countries.
In a country in need of entrepreneurial leaders, immigrants are unmatched; 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. The ethos of America has been to bring the best and brightest from around the world, and the Senate's bill does just that.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, someone who will play a key role in advancing a reform package through the House, has wisely framed the debate in economic terms, telling The Wall Street Journal, "We believe in pro-growth economics. We believe in entrepreneurialism. Well, that's immigration."
If Arizona plays its cards rights and capitalizes on the know-how of the Arizona Commerce Authority, our state can leverage a revamped high-tech visa system and our welcoming business climate to make Arizona an innovation capital rivaling anywhere on Earth.
Gang of Eight member Sen. Marco Rubio has called the bill a "starting point." Considering that the package aggressively improves the country's high-tech talent pool, I'd call it a good start.
(Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.)