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Despite an often rancorous debate on broader immigration reform, Congressional leaders in both parties have united around improving the ability of United States employers to hire and continue employing highly-skilled immigrant workers. Large American technology companies have highlighted a substantial gap between the demand and supply of qualified domestic workers in fields like science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), which has reportedly influenced decisions to outsource these jobs to overseas employees in recent years. As a result, addressing problems with the existing highly-skilled visa programs is a top priority for Congress and several influential American industries.

How does the current system work?

Under today’s immigration rules, foreign students obtain L-1 visas to allow them to study in the US. After graduation, L-1 visa holders can use the popular Optional Practical Training (OPT) process to work at a domestic employer for up to 24 months. While the L-1 visa is designed to be a temporary process for education and training of foreign students, the H-1B visa provides a more lasting legal status to foreign workers with an employer willing to sponsor them. The sponsoring employer must apply for an H-1B visa, which typically lasts six years and can offer workers time to gain permanent residency through a green card.

What are the problems Congress is trying to address?

First, students educated in high-demand fields at America’s top universities are often forced to return to their home country after starting their careers in the US. This form of ‘brain drain’ results in entrepreneurs starting a business in Europe or Asia, rather than in the US. Policymakers have cited other nations’ expedited permanent residency processes as a model for keeping the best and brightest.

In addition, the demand for high-skilled workers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields has greatly outpaced the number of visas available each year. On April 1 of each year, the government opens the H-1B visa application process. This year, the 85,000 open slots for initial H-1B visas were filled within a single week. Policy solutions for this issue involve establishing a fluctuating annual cap on visas, significantly above the current level.

At the same time, increasing the cap on visas for highly skilled workers would ignore one of the current system’s most controversial problems. Last year, five information technology staffing corporations attained over 20% of all H-1B visas, prompting concerns that visas are facilitating the outsourcing of US jobs to low-wage, temporary immigrants. Critics highlight that the low salaries paid to these temporary workers have driven down salaries for other US technology workers and undermined the value of the H-1B program. Proposals in this area focus on reforming the visa application process to allow prioritization of certain applications and expanding wage rules to promote increased compensation.

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