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Want to Work In The USA? Immigration Reforms May Make It Easier

The US immigration reform debate is heating up. And the proposed reforms are good news for individuals who wish to work in the USA.

Immigration is a divisive issue at the best of times, and recent speeches and committee hearings have confirmed that deep disagreements exist about the best way forward. Nonetheless, one issue all sides seem to agree on is that the law should make it easier for certain foreign individuals to work in the United States. Proposals put forward by Republican and Democrat senators alike, as well as by President Obama, recommend making more work visas and green cards available to high-level professionals and foreign students with advanced degrees, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Current Work Visas

Currently, foreign individuals wishing to work in the USA may have a number of visa options available, depending on their circumstances. Unlike other countries where individuals obtain the same "work permit", the USA offers a number of non-immigrant and immigrant visa options, each with its own complex, specific requirements that a foreign national must meet in order to obtain the right to work. Therefore, while the end result (employment authorisation) is the same, the paths leading to this point and the associated time limits and conditions, are visa-specific. The main problem with the current immigration system is that demand far outweighs supply. This situation adversely affects both employers, who are unable to hire the workers they need, and foreign nationals who, despite being highly educated and experienced, are unable to secure lawful permission to work.

Among the most popular work visas is the H-1B Specialty Occupation visa which, among other criteria, requires the US employer to be willing to file a petition and meet specified conditions, a beneficiary who has a Bachelor's degree or equivalent experience, and a job which involves specialised and complex work duties which usually demand a Bachelor's degree. The H-1B visa has an annual numerical limit "cap" of 65,000 which, during the economic boom of times past, has been exhausted the same day that the visas were released. Additionally, the visa requires advance planning as it is released in April of each year but the foreign worker may not begin employment until October of that year at the earliest.

Other popular visas are the L-1 Intra-Company Transferee, a visa for Managers, Executives, or individuals with specialized knowledge who are transferring from a company outside the US to a parent, child, subsidiary, or affiliate company in the USA; and the E-2 Treaty Investor visa which enables investors from countries with whom the US has a qualifying treaty to work in the USA to actively develop and direct a business. Additionally, there are many other visas which permit employment in the USA.

Proposed Reforms

Immigration reforms allowing more STEM graduates with advanced degrees to work in the USA are not new. In fact, a bill was introduced last year by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith's (R-Texas) proposing up to 55,000 STEM visas be made available for advanced degree graduates of U.S. universities. However, despite White House agreement with the principles espoused, it did not support the bill because it didn't meet the goal of comprehensive immigration reform. The bill eventually failed.

During Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to "cut waiting periods and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy". Similar support was expressed during Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Comprehensive Immigration Reform by US Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. She stated that the case for immigration reform in order to improve access to the US job market for high skilled workers is "extraordinarily strong."

A new bill introduced by a bipartisan group of senators in early February 2013 – the Immigration Innovation Act- includes proposals to increase the number of H-1Bs to 115,000, and additionally implement a market-based approach to the cap so that it can adjust – up or down – to the demands of the economy, providing for a 300,000 upper ceiling. Additional proposals include eliminating the cap for individuals with advanced degrees who currently have 20,000 visas set aside for them, as well as allowing spouses of H-1B holders to obtain employment authorisation. If the reforms are implemented, the resultant changes would mean a significant improvement in foreign workers' ability to work in the USA.

Impact of Proposed Reforms

Businesses across the US have publicly supported this and other similar initiatives. Despite their popularity, such measures also have their critics who are concerned that they will create adverse consequences for US workers who would have to compete with the best and brightest individuals from around the world.

While not without merit, such concerns should be tempered by indicators that foreign workers would be largely applying for different jobs than those for which US workers are competing, and by consistent reports from businesses that they simply cannot find workers with the needed skills amongst US workers. Indeed, a 2010 Brookings Institute survey of economic literature concluded that "immigrants raise the overall standard of living of American workers by boosting wages and lowering prices" because the foreign workers often don't compete for the same jobs as US workers. High skilled immigrants in particular have a boosting effect on the American economy, being more likely to patent new inventions or processes and start new businesses which employ US workers.

Individuals who want to work in the USA should have particular reason to rejoice (albeit tentatively for the time being). If the proposed comprehensive immigration reforms are implemented, your American dream may be closer to becoming a reality.