Automation as the Next Big Disruptor?

H-1B Visas: How Do We Define the American Dream?

With the recent mid-term elections in the U.S., and the subsequent announcement of executive order action on immigration by the White House, the H-1B visa debate is once again raging. The issue ignites passion because it goes to the heart of the American Dream and exposes that Americans may no longer agree on what that dream is.

Unfortunately, it is the wrong debate.

Just about everyone in American business and the vast majority of people in government agree that there is a shortage of highly skilled, highly educated technology workers. The H-1B program addresses less than 0.0004 percent of the workforce—hardly a solution to the problem. The fact is that the U.S. is not producing the number of qualified workers it needs.

This is an education problem, in my view, and one that has been growing in severity for almost four decades. Blame the cost of higher education; blame politicians, blame educators themselves; or even blame what many consider to be progressively more entitled generations that don’t put a high priority on professional ambition. I can’t tell you who to blame—the symptoms are numerous, but the disease is quite clear. The U.S. education system is simply not generating the volume of STEM-educated people that U.S. businesses need to compete and grow.

Complicating matters, this is an issue that ignites passion, produces strange bedfellows and brings an already stalled Washington to a screeching halt. In fact, some believe that the vagueness of the Obama administration’s executive order is a deliberate attempt to force Congress to compromise. The problem is that the mainstream wings of both parties agree on the H-1B program expansion, while the populist wings of both parties also agree, but on the opposite side of the issue. Then add the fact that the political firecracker of undocumented immigration has been lumped in (confusing a labor issue with a business issue) and you get the definition of gridlock.

A very coherent argument, in my opinion, was made in support of expanding access to permanent resident status for H-1B holders. But to what effect? It is unlikely the President can act alone on this, and even if he could, visa holders don’t necessarily want to stay in the U.S. forever anymore. As economic opportunity increases in India, for example, the allure of returning home after a few years to a great job, a lower cost of living, and loved ones becomes more and more attractive.

There are small victories for the tech industry in the executive order, mostly focusing on allowing technology students, recent graduates and entrepreneurs already in the country to stay here. Detractors of these programs say they are poorly managed and could become homeland security risks. The executive order does little for the tech industry and surprisingly less to decouple the very different issues of documented and undocumented immigration.

So where exactly is this headed? The President has an immigration agenda he hasn’t been able sell to the Democrats or the Republicans. It looks like we are stuck with very limited action and lots of rhetoric, not to mention the possibility of lawsuits that would undoubtedly make it to the Supreme Court.

Ironically, the mainstream wings of both parties have enough votes together to pass an increase in the H-1B limits, which is exactly what the tech industry wants most.

But that would require bipartisan collaboration, which, in today’s environment, may be the most elusive of American dreams.