Beyond H-1B: Other Avenues to Adding Skilled Workers

Last Thursday, presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced his new “softened” immigration plan, and called for lifting the cap on visas for high-skilled temporary workers. This year, the H-1B high-skilled worker visa cap was reached within two months after the application period opened. Changing those limits would require an act of Congress–unlikely in the current political environment.

With gridlock in Washington acting as a constant barrier to comprehensive change, a piecemeal approach to reform has already entered the conversation–and it may hold promise. President Obama recently issued a directive to halt deportation of young immigrants brought to the United States illegally—a small step toward the goals of the much more extensive DREAM act. 

So, can something similar be done for high-skilled immigration? One route is to simply adjust Optional Practical Training (OPT)–a program that allows foreign students holding F-1 visas to work for a limited period of time while waiting to receive temporary worker visas. This program was originally designed to provide relief for foreign students with pending H-1B visa petitions by allowing 12 months of work authorization while they wait. 

In 2008, when the H-1B cap was reached within one day after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began accepting applications, President Bush extended F-1 visas an additional 17 months for foreign students who graduated with bachelors, masters, or doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.  Earlier this month, President Obama recently maintained Bush’s 29 month OPT term limit for STEM fields and increased the number of fields eligible for extension.

Extending OPT is far from a permanent solution to address the challenges of meeting the demand for high-skilled immigration, but it is an option that the president can exercise without going through Congress. Historically, congressional attempts to adjust H-1B cap levels have come after extreme delays, if at all. For example, a cap lift designed to help address workforce need during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s was not enacted until the bubble had already burst.

America needs a more nimble solution to address employer demand for high-skilled foreign workers. Looking beyond the H1-B visa cap could provide additional useful responses to the need for high-skilled immigration.