How Bezos, Cook can get immigration reform back on Trump's agenda

  • A White House tech summit is expected to draw big names on Monday.
  • Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook and others are expected to attend the American Technology Council kickoff.
  • Here's how tech leaders can get immigration reform back on Trump's agenda.
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple
Michel Porro | Getty images
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

Tech titans Ginni Rometty of IBM, Tim Cook of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon are among those expected to meet with the Trump administration for a tech summit at the White House June 19-23.

The inaugural meeting of the American Technology Council is the perfect place for these CEOs to leverage their expertise and name recognition to get immigration reform back on the GOPs front burner.

Among the issues that warrant discussion: reforming the rules around H-1B visas. By doing so, occupations that struggle with high vacancies – including shortages affecting the tech industry – would attract more highly skilled foreign-born workers. America's economic pie and ability to innovate would increase as a result.

As the administration knows, many flaws afflict the current immigration system. For example, despite today's unprecedented level of global competition, family reunification – not labor force needs – still ranks as the top factor in determining who receives one of the limited U.S. visas each year. And the system allocates just 14 percent of immigrant visas for employment purposes, with less than half of those going to the primary immigrants actually coming here to work. (More than half that come in on employment-based visas are spouses or children of the worker.)

"Tech leaders should take advantage of their time at the White House to suggest a few sensible high-skilled immigration policy solutions to the administration."

Meanwhile, high-skilled U.S. jobs that foreign-born workers could fill persistently go vacant. According to one economic index, the fields that will be most impacted by ongoing shortages are health, skilled trade labor, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Just the shortages in STEM alone should keep tech CEOs up at night. Their companies experience firsthand the challenges in finding qualified workers in this field.

For example, take information security analysts: the sensitive nature of their work prevents these jobs from being outsourced to other countries. And forecasts project mathematical and statistical occupations, such as data scientists, to experience faster demand growth over the near term.

There is sensitivity, of course, around whether immigrants take jobs away from American citizens. Research indicates that immigrants can help create more net jobs by filling positions that remain unfilled. A study from the Niskanen Center, for example, indicates that nearly two jobs overall are created in industries associated with computers and engineering with the entrance of every one immigrant with a high-skilled work visa in those industries.

Tech leaders should take advantage of their time at the White House to suggest a few sensible high-skilled immigration policy solutions to the administration. First, annual per-country caps on permanent, employment-based visas should be removed. Employment-based visas should be based on skills, not nationality.

These visas are currently rationed to a fixed number per country of origin, regardless of the number and skill set/occupational mix of that country's applicants. This means we are limiting our ability to bring in STEM (and other) talent we need, simply because it is concentrated in certain parts of the world, such as India. This doesn't make economic – or common – sense.

Second, educational attainment should no longer be the dominant criterion to determine employment-based visas. Though important, educational attainment represents just one aspect of the equation for employment qualification. As the twin forces of global competition and technological progress only intensify, actual skill sets matter more than degrees.

Finally, state and locally administered employment-based visas should be created under any immigration reform proposal. Governors and mayors have a considerably more relevant perspective on the needs of their labor markets than the federal government, yet they have no input or control under current immigration law.

Empowering states and localities to influence immigration policy has worked well in Canada; it is a decentralized approach with aspects that merit consideration by the U.S.

All eyes will be on the interpersonal dynamics of "tech week." Participating tech leaders would be wise to refrain from indulging the media with stories of conflict and instead fill the days and available airwaves with substantive discussions around issues impacting our economy. Immigration is not an easy topic, but if the right reforms come into place, it will generate immense prosperity and innovation for the national good.

Commentary by Steve Odland, CEO of the Committee for Economic Development (CED) and former CEO of Office Depot and AutoZone. Read CED's new immigration report here.

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