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A group of technology leaders from around Utah met with Sen. Orrin Hatch Thursday to discuss what immigration reform means to their businesses and why it’s important for the future of Utah and the United States.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's political advocacy group, FWD.us, hosted the roundtable discussion at Property Solutions in Lehi. FWD.us is an organization started by leaders in the tech community to promote policies to keep the United States competitive in a global economy, including comprehensive immigration reform. The roundtable was just one of a series of roundtables that FWD.us has hosted in recent months to keep up the momentum behind the push for immigration reform.
Hatch has been a long-time supporter of immigration reform in the Senate. A hot topic during the discussion was the Hatch-sponsored Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, which seeks to remedy the current H1B visa shortage by increasing the cap from 65,000 to 115,000 annually. It would also establish a market-based H1B escalator, so that the cap can adjust up or down to the demands of the economy with a ceiling of 300,000.
H1B visas are provided to foreign nationals with expertise in fields like science, technology, medicine, business, education and law. To obtain an H1B visa for a worker, the company sponsoring them must be filling a position that needs a bachelor's degree.
Besides increasing the amount of visas available, the act would also uncap the existing U.S. advanced degree exemption—currently limited to 20,000 per year—and authorize employment for dependent spouses of H1B visa holders.
It also ensures that investment in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education within the United States is not disadvantaged by the H1B visa program. The act requires money from the H1B visa program and employment-based green cards to be used to fund a grant program to support STEM education and worker retraining.
The act secured enough votes to pass the Senate on June 27. It will soon be debated in the House of Representatives.
Todd Stevens, co-founder of Renewable Tech Ventures, said talented people are the critical factor for any company, and increasing the number of available visas will increase the talent pool.
“American businesses need to compete internationally by getting the top talent,” he said. “The United States is the technology leader internationally, but we’re behind several countries in clean tech and energy innovation. In these sectors it’s critical to be able to get the best talent we can.”
Robert Clyde, CEO of Adaptive Computing, agreed and said his company can’t hire people fast enough, leaving some positions open for months at a time.
“There aren’t enough skilled workers in Utah and in the United States,” he said. “I’m really excited about the future for Utah and the country five to 10 years from now [as more STEM-educated students graduate], but what does my company do now? Who do I hire tomorrow? It’s a real challenge. That’s why increasing visas is crucial.”
Clyde said it’s been frustrating for him to see smart students come to Utah to attend a university who want to stay and work in Utah for high-tech companies, but are forced to leave because they can’t obtain a visa.
Although the act has support from several major tech companies, including Google and Yahoo, it hasn’t been without opposition. The most frequent resistance to increasing the cap is the idea that more H1B visas will allow foreign workers to take jobs away from U.S. workers. Dave Elkington, CEO of InsideSales.com, said this isn’t true.
“Some of our best workers are not American citizens,” he said. “But the scarcity mentality has to go. People think that foreign people will come in and take these jobs and then they’ll be unemployed, or their aunt or uncle will be unemployed. It’s stupid. It’s crap. The faster I can hire, the faster we grow. The faster we grow the more people I can hire.”
Hatch said he feels confident that the immigration act will be passed because it “makes sense” and will pave the way for the future. He stressed that the United States is still the most innovative country in the world, but that it’s slowly starting to fall behind because the tech fields aren’t able to grow.
Hatch also suggested that citizens who support immigration reform write letters to their local legislators so their voices can also be heard.
For more information on FWD.us, visit www.fwd.us.