The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services started accepting visa petitions for FY 2012 for highly skilled workers this month. Last week, the Immigration Policy and Enforcement Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held its hearing, “H-1B Visas: Designing a Program to Meet the Needs of the U.S. Economy and U.S. Workers.”

As Chairman Elton Gallegly (R-CA) pointed out, it was the subcommittee’s first hearing on the H-1B program since 2006.  After years of Congressional stalemate on comprehensive immigration reform, perhaps this is a hopeful sign that a narrower reform approach focused on skilled employment-based immigration is again being considered.

Chairman Gallegly pointed out that “much has changed since 2006,” with demand for H-1B visas having decreased with the Great Recession.  It is true that the degree of the visa shortage has lessened compared to the preposterous situation of FY 2008 and FY 2009 when the visa cap was reached within days of the start of the filing season.  However, FY 2010 saw the cap hit two months into the fiscal year in December 2009, and the FY 2011 cap was hit in January 2011, so the cap remains insufficient.

The fact that the number of H-1B petitions has fluctuated to reflect the economic situation argues for the necessity for a flexible market-based cap as CCIA has long advocated.  Every year that goes by without addressing this issue is a year in which employers are unable to hire the skilled foreign nationals they need, and the U.S. continues to surrender this global talent to overseas competitors.

As the gridlock on comprehensive reform seems to stymie all aspects of immigration, it is important to note that the failure to address the problems of skilled employment-based immigration does not merely maintain an undesirable status quo, but leads to an active deterioration in the competitive position of U.S. companies as foreign nationals take their skills elsewhere to put to use for competitors.  In addition, even as reform efforts have not moved, we have seen repeated attempts to increase visa fees.  It seems that for skilled immigration, this gridlock is one-sided in that no progress is made, but unfavorable changes do occur.

Given this state of affairs, and faced with a political environment not conducive to taking a comprehensive approach to anything, let alone the radioactively divisive issue of illegal immigration, a narrower skilled employment-based reform may be more realistic.  We hope that last week’s hearing marks the start of a new approach that doesn’t let the comprehensive but immovable stand in the way of narrower reform that requires immediate action.

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