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Latin America Also Pays For A Broken U.S. Visa System

Restrictive U.S. entry requirements deprive talented people of work opportunity but also drag down the competitiveness across the Americas.

In Washington, advocating for immigrant rights
In Washington, advocating for immigrant rights
*Jerry Haar

-OpEd-

MIAMI — The United States has created a visa system that honors family reunification, a noble goal, but that discriminates against highly qualified people with no relatives in the country.

My Honduran housekeeper, an American citizen, can bring her ailing, elderly aunt to live in the U.S. without a problem. But a Brazilian scientist with a double PhD in computer science and biomedical engineering and four patents — but no relatives in the U.S. – may have to wait years for an immigrant visa.

Our complicated and confusing immigration system is nonsensical, irrational and absurd. It undermines our economic competitiveness as illustrated by the U.S. falling to fourth place in the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report and to fifth in the Global Innovation Index. It also partly explains our students’ poor results in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and the fact that we have fewer graduates in these areas.

Like the companies that outsource part of their operations abroad to increase productivity, the U.S. must “internalize,” or produce more at home. Hiring foreign talent is the fastest and surest way to do this.

Foreign scientists, engineers and enterpreneurs contribute immensely to our economy. Studies show that a 1% increase in STEM-specialized employees in the workforce raises the wages of university graduates by 4 to 6%.

Between 1995 and 2005, immigrant entrepreneurs founded or co-founded more than 25% of all tech and engineering firms in the United States, creating 450,000 jobs. More than half the start-ups were founded by immigrants.

Congress will no doubt start debating immigration laws this year. Expansion of the H-1B non-immigrant visa, which allows companies to temporarily employ foreign workers, should be a priority, as it helps stimulate innovation, patent applications and employment. Hopefully, the White House and Congress will reach an agreement on that.

Meanwhile, countries such as Canada, Chile, Australia and the United Kingdom are attracting foreign talents and investors with work visas and financial incentives.

Latin America should regard U.S. immigration policies with worry. They effectively block access to opportunities for many talented scientists to improve themselves. And given that many Latin American scientists and engineers return to their countries to begin businesses or transfer their knowledge to local partners and collaborators, the United States’ restrictive policies diminish regional competitiveness in areas of intellectual property.

Congress must act immediately to reform the visa system and boost competitiveness — not just in the U.S., but in the Americas.

*Jerry Haar is associate dean and management professor at the School of Business Administration at Florida International University in Miami.

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