Every year, hundreds of thousands of employment-based immigrant visas are provided to workers under U.S. immigration law. But what does this mean for the average person working and living in the U.S.? These highly skilled immigrants are an essential part of the workforce, filling labor gaps and contributing specialized skills, especially in STEM. Their presence is also shown to create higher wages, increased productivity and lower unemployment for U.S.-born workers.
In this episode of Catalyst, Kevin Fandl, associate professor of legal studies and strategic global management, tells us about the past and present of high–skilled worker visas—as well as his vision for the future of the program.
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Full Episode Transcript
Host: Welcome to the Catalyst. The podcast of Temple University’s Fox School of Business. I’m your host, Tiffany Sumner. Today we’re once again speaking to Kevin Fandl, associate professor of Legal Studies and Strategic Global Management at the Fox School. In this episode, Kevin discusses what high-skilled worker visas are and how they may be impacted under the Biden Administration. Kevin explains how changes in immigration policy affect people like me, how these visas fulfill critical needs in the job market and the impact that this has on the economy. We leveraged Kevin’s knowledge of international business and immigration policy to get a sense [00:01:00] of the past, unclear present, and potential future for high-skilled worker visas. Kevin, thank you for joining me, you are the first guest that we’ve had a second interview with so thank you for making it to the second season and the back half of the second season of Catalyst.
Kevin: My pleasure to be back Tiffany.
Host: Today we’re going to be talking about high-skilled worker visas, so let’s start with the basics. What are they and why should we care about them?
Kevin: High-skilled worker visas refer to a special category of visas for professionals and other high-skilled workers from abroad that come and contribute to the American economy and they are a very limited type of Visa with a cap on how many we offer each year. And basically, they are used to fill positions in need. So this could be positioned in the [00:02:00] healthcare industry this could be physicians in nursing homes, for example, could also be artists, scholars, folks with a lot of experience in life or social sciences, but the basic idea of a high-skilled worker visa is that we are trying to fill in gaps in the American economy where there are needs among employers that can’t be satisfied with American workers.
Host: how do high-skilled worker visas and those coming from other countries earn them? How did that affect me today doing my job in my apartment?
Kevin: So, that’s a good question, and it’s one that is on the front of a lot of people’s minds as we look at immigration reform. Thinking about bringing in any immigrants, especially when you’ve got a labor market like we have right now that’s struggling to keep up [00:03:00] and a lot of workers out of work, a lot of folks who lost their job recently thinking about bringing in more immigrants is a real threat to a lot of people. The difference with the high-skilled worker visa and the low-skilled worker visa is the high-skill folks are filling gaps, again, they’re filling gaps where we have and need already. where employers are looking for a particular position and they simply don’t have a qualified pool of American workers. In fact, the process for getting a high-skilled worker over to the United States is not quick or easy, or cheap. An employer has to go through a very extensive certification process working with three different government agencies in order to show that they have a real need in that particular position, that they have tried really, really hard to find American workers to fill that position and they’ve unsuccessful in doing so and that there is a qualified person [00:04:00] overseas willing to take the position at prevailing wages. So we’re not talking about displacing American workers, we’re not talking about paying someone more than an American worker might make. We are really talking about a gap here that these employers need to fill. So how it affects us on a daily basis is really, it’s giving our employers what they need. And it does to some extent show that the American job market maybe needs to adjust a little bit. We need to focus more on STEM education. We need to focus more on training our workers in healthcare in creating more of a diverse body of labor, but the truth is we do have gaps. Every economy has gaps and these immigrants fill those gaps where we need them most. [00:05:00] Especially thinking about the pandemic right now, Tiffany, looking around at the tremendous strains that we’ve seen on the Healthcare System. Many of the other workers in that system are immigrants here on high-skilled worker visas, and we really need to keep them I think on our agenda.
Host: I think that’s a great segue into what I was about to ask next which is, how have high skilled workers been beneficial in the past, and is that true in particular Industries?
Kevin: Yeah, I think for any immigrant workers they’re beneficial in some way, whether you’re talking about low-skilled workers who are working on farms, making sure that we have people who are willing to pick our fruits, people who are willing to be seasonal workers which most Americans are not. They fill a particular need. At the same time, the high-skilled workers are really providing that particular need for us, whether they’re coming in in the healthcare profession or whether they’re coming [00:06:00] in as something else, we have a lot of engineers for example who come in from India, from China, from other parts of Asia who contribute tremendously to our innovation economy. There are quite a few immigrants who come in and actually create new businesses who register patents here that are very lucrative to the American economy. I mean, imagine America without Sergey Brin or Albert Einstein or even Sofia Vergara. These are people who come from abroad and contributed tremendously to the American economy, and we need them.
Host: And also another brilliant segue into sort of the next question, which is how do they affect the American economy? In particular, how do they affect American businesses? What have been the benefits and the consequences of the visas for companies and the economy overall?
Kevin: Another controversial question and it really kind of depends on which angle you’re looking at. [00:07:00] If you look at the macro effects of any immigrants on a developed economy like the U.S., the benefits are tremendous. They are positive overwhelmingly for the American economy. The host economy generally benefits because, again, you’re either filling gaps or you’re filling a need that can’t be satisfied. But in our context, in the United States, a lot of folks that are coming in here are coming in to take advantage of what America is. We are an innovation economy, we are an economy of ideas out of patents of new business development, of new opportunity and a lot of immigrants who come in from India, from China and Singapore even from Canada or Europe, they are coming here because they want to take [00:08:00] advantage of that opportunity. And compared to Americans, immigrants are more likely to start their own business here and in a very successful manner, they are more likely to register patents and they’re more likely to create value with their inventions. That really contributes a lot to the American economy. There was a study recently that I read that more than half of the unicorns created in 2018 had at least one immigrant founder behind them. And that collective value is a quarter of a trillion dollars to the American economy. So we’re talking here about real value for American workers, real value for the American labor market. These folks are filling positions under the Visa that we’re talking about here which is generally called H1B, these workers are coming in here or working at the same prevailing [00:09:00] wages as a typical American worker so they’re not getting anything extra but they’re contributing much more to the American economy.
Host: So what do you think the future of highly-skilled worker visas should look like under the Biden Administration?
Kevin: There’s a lot of talk about how to address immigration in the Biden administration and not a whole lot of precision quite yet. The reason for that is because we need Congress to get involved here. We have not had substantial immigration reform for a long, long time. One example is that President Biden is talking about a potential amnesty where our path to citizenship for the 11 million or so undocumented workers here. Now, that’s a mix of low-skilled, unskilled, and high-skilled workers who are present in the United States. That conversation [00:10:00] hasn’t happened since 1986 under President Regan. That was the last time we saw any kind of amnesty or act of citizenship. That’s one of the things on the Biden agenda. Biden is also talking about those frontline healthcare workers, giving them a quick path to citizenship so that we can keep them here and make sure that we don’t have to end up forcing them home. This conversation has to happen but it really has to happen with some practical impact. That’s where Congress needs to get involved and think about what we are as a country, what we want to be. We know the value of immigrants. The majority of Americans see the value of immigrants in the economy. It’s a matter of how we bring them in, [00:11:00] how we select who we want to be a part of this economy. From my perspective, I think we’re not doing it the best way we should. Right now, the way the Visa process works is it’s basically one big queue that everybody can stand in and first come first serve. Whoever applies for the Visa first, if you’re qualified and meet the requirements, you can get. And so we end up with an overwhelming number of engineers from India or from China which doesn’t really give us the diversity or professionals out there that we really need. Some countries like Australia and the UK, they use a points-based system to prefer things like Advanced degrees, experience in a particular profession, a license in that profession. I think that kind of a system would be more beneficial for us because then we would really be cherry-picking the best and the brightest around the world to fill the [00:12:00] needs in STEM and healthcare, places where we really do have shortages. That’s not necessarily on the agenda right now but there’s so much open discussion about what immigration is going to look like that I think it could be part of the agenda going forward.
Host: So, that’s an interesting point. H1B, there is a quota, right? There’s a limited number of them. What is the thinking behind the quota? Why is there even a quota?
Kevin: The quota has been there since the Immigration Act of 1990 and that quota is basically to say that you don’t want to overwhelm the labor market, we don’t want to let employers simply willy-nilly take as many foreign workers that they can because they’re still is a risk that they could cheat the system and cut an American worker out of the job. Again, the labor process when I worked as an immigration attorney, I went through [00:13:00] this process with employers and it is complicated, it is expensive, it seems like a real waste to do it just to get rid of an American worker. But needless to say, that cap was put in there to try to smooth the impact, to soften the impact on the American labor market. The cap has moved up and down, it went up to almost 200,000 at one point. The cap is filled very, very quickly as soon. As it’s released each year, the queue is overwhelmed within, sometimes, hours. It’s an artificial cap, it is really unnecessary and it is really, really low. So I do think the cap should either be removed, it would just make sense to let the labor market decide what is the demand out there. Or it should be substantially increased.
Host: what did high-skilled worker visas look like under the Trump Administration? [00:14:00]
Kevin: They kept them low and they still came in under the 65,000 cap, but it was very slow going there was a lot of, I don’t know about the bureaucracy within the agency’s, I had heard that it really clogged up the system a little bit. It was a bit slower to get those approvals. One thing to note is with that 65,000 if you apply, you don’t make that cap, you fall into the backlog so there is a backlog of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are still waiting to get into that cap. So that backlog wasn’t really addressed very much during the Trump Administration and again it’s just building up. So it’s putting more and more pressure on employers, who really need a lot of these workers. Those shortages remain, and the cap is not allowing them to be filled.
Host: Going back to something that you said it was [00:15:00] interesting to hear you say that everyone knows the value of these workers but I’m sort of curious like immigration itself has become very politicized. So is that in any way impacting the perceived value of these visas?
Kevin: It’s certainly not new that it’s politicized. Immigration has been a hot topic for 150 years, I would say. But under the Trump Administration, I think it became supercharged, in a sense. We really did see a lot of discrimination toward immigrants during that administration. A lot of the rules that were put in place from the Muslim ban to the border wall to the separation of children, these types of policies really reflected a turning away [00:16:00] from the rest of the world. An insular approach to our market, which I think is a dreadful thing. Most Americans I wouldn’t say all Americans but according to Pew Research, the majority of Americans do believe immigrants bring value to our economy, and they would welcome more immigrants coming in. That I hope is the attitude going forward for the majority of Congress as well because certainly from an economics perspective, the value’s there. It’s more a matter of are we going to see a major shift in our culture, are we going to see a shift in things like language, seeing more English as a second language classes being offered at our local school might be off-putting to some, but the truth is that number of immigrants in the United States has been steadily growing and over time, I think this has made it easier for many Americans to become comfortable [00:17:00] with a more diverse environment but for some, it has created tensions. And those tensions were front and center during the last administration. To be honest with you, I think that’s not a reason to stop pursuing immigration reform. If anything, it’s more of a reason to do so in a way that is understanding of American values, our point of view and our need for a diverse economy.
Host: Yeah, those are all really, really excellent points and you also mentioned Healthcare and Covid. Why else is this conversion really important to be having right now at the beginning of 2021?
Kevin: Well, one reason is that Americans are not producing as many children as we used to and we need some replacements, we need some workers to take care of our growing elderly [00:18:00] population and that’s something that you can do in two ways. You can either as a government, you can incentivize more children or you can bring in immigrants and immigrants can fill many of the needs working in those in those professions and that’s something that we’ve been trying to do. We’ve been focusing on low-skilled workers in many ways to work in a lot of janitorial positions, service positions that many Americans just don’t want to do. But also I think at the start of 2021, we need to turn the page on the recognition of our global position in the economy. We are not an insular market, we can’t view ourselves as isolated from the rest of the world. We are a very attractive market to many highly-educated people out there, and I think we’d be squandering an opportunity if we didn’t open the door to those professionals coming here and contributing to our economy [00:19:00] making it better, creating those new businesses sharing with our innovation environment. If you look at Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley was largely founded by immigrants, and while that’s great and it really set America apart, what’s the next Silicon Valley? And is it going to be something that’s created because of American industrialization and American ideas or are we going blend some new diverse ideas from professional immigrants?
Host: So, in closing, is there anything else that you would want to share thinking about the podcast listeners, the Fox Community, many of us are professionals sitting at our desks or close by at home listening to this podcast. How can we have any kind of impact on high-skilled worker visas or like maybe influence the government to make choices that would benefit us all a little bit better? [00:20:00]
Kevin: I think what I would like to say that high-skill worker visas are wonderful in creating opportunities for established professionals but there’s also a pipeline that we can create to keep those professionals here. And what I’m talking about are international students. Fox and Temple University, in general, as well as most universities across the United States bring a lot of international students here to study everything from liberal arts to professional degrees. Many of those students have very few opportunities after they graduate to stay on and contribute to the American economy. Most have about a year, more or less, to try to find some kind of an opportunity before their visa is up and they have to go home. I think that is another area where we are squandering an opportunity, you don’t necessarily need to bring in an established professional [00:21:00] from abroad when we’ve got students, we have trained here who have the expertise we need, they’ve got The English language skill that they need, they’re familiar with our culture and they can be wonderful contributors to the economy. So I do think part of the agenda of immigration reform needs to focus on international students, how we can turn them into a pipeline for future American professionals.
Host: I want to thank Kevin for his second appearance on Catalyst and for explaining the importance of high-skilled worker visas. Immigrants are a part of the lifeblood of the American economy, they play a pivotal role in shaping innovation centers like Silicon Valley and they contribute to advancements across many industries. As Kevin said, high-skilled worker visas provide opportunities [00:22:00] for individuals, communities and the U.S. economy. Without them, it’s hard to imagine how the US will continue to innovate and remain competitive in today’s global economy.
Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Visit us on the web [00:21:00] at fox.temple.edu/catalyst. We are produced by MilkStreet Marketing, Megan Alt, Anna Batt, and Stephen Orbanek, and Karen Naylor. I hope you’ll join us next time. Until then, I’m Tiffany Sumner and this is Catalyst.