Update on Roundtable Discussion on Immigration Reform with Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris

Community Leaders;

This morning I attended a roundtable discussion at the Ohio State University regarding proposed comprehensive immigration reform. Participants included local Ohio entrepreneurs, current international graduate students, Ohio State faculty and administration and the Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor, Seth D. Harris.

The discussion focused primarily on the economic advantages of visa reform for certain students – particularly those pursuing advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – to make the United States more competitive.

Acting Secretary Harris began by sharing his own immigrant roots. He noted that his grandparents were immigrants from Russia via Germany, and that they were struggling, but ultimately successful entrepreneurs here in the United States. He began by quoting figures representative of the immigrant contributions to the economy. He said immigrants contribute more than $1 trillion dollars to the U.S. economy annually. He noted that immigrants tend to be younger than the population at large, and are twice as likely as the population at large to start their own business in the United States. In 2007, he said, immigrant-owned businesses employed 4.7 million Americans and generated hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue. Last, he noted that fully 40% of the “Fortune 500” companies were founded by either immigrants to our country or the children of immigrants.

But he said the immigration system in the United States is broken. He cited 11 million undocumented people living and working in a “shadow economy”, employers taking advantage of the current immigration system, and a tedious and ineffective visa programs as primary causes for the failure of the U.S. immigration system. He said that not only is comprehensive immigration reform going to happen, but that he expects it in 2013. He listed President Obama’s four primary principles in comprehensive immigration reform: 

1) Continue to strengthen borders

2) Crack down on unscrupulous employers that hire undocumented workers

3) Create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people living in the United States

4) Streamline the legal immigration process 

Today’s discussion revolved around the fourth of the President’s consideration – streamlining the legal immigration process. He began by asking international graduate students to describe their experience with the system as it presently operates. The students described a frustrating uncertainty, a long process and a shortage of resources in navigating the post-graduate immigration process. Students come originally on F-1 student visas, which contemplate a return to their home countries upon completion of their studies. Once those visas expire, students have up to 12 months of “Optional Practical Training” wherein they can work in the United States without and H1-B visa. This period is 29 months for STEM graduates. Once that time has elapsed, however, they must return to their home countries

H1-B visas, the primary tool that international graduate students use to stay and work in the United States, also ostensibly contemplate a return to a visa holder’s home country after a few years. The H1-B Visa program is woefully insufficient for demand, and the process of obtaining one is fraught with costs in both time and money. There are only 65,000 H1-B visas available each year. The Department of Labor, which administers the program, begins accepting applications on April 1st, and the Acting Secretary said they anticipate they will be out of visas to grant in the middle of next week, a little more than one week after they are offered. Acting Secretary Harris also noted that there are an additional 20,000 H1-B visas available for employees with advanced degrees.

Applicants must have a company to sponsor them when they submit their H1-B visa application. Entrepreneurs and human resources professionals from STEM-field companies that were part of the roundtable also elaborated on the shortcomings of the present visa system from the employer’s end.  They cited an inability to find qualified applicants for STEM jobs that do not require an H1-B visa – one said 2/3 of qualified applicants for a recent opening for a scientist were foreign STEM students with advanced degrees. They said it is cost-prohibitive for smaller and even medium-sized companies to sponsor H1-B applicants, as the regulatory and legal knowledge required creates an expensive new burden on the company’s bottom line.

Ohio State administrators also noted that, after we train student visa holders with a world class education, we’re essentially asking them to leave the country because the H1-B visa system is so inadequate. We’re telling them to go back to their home countries and found companies there that ultimately will compete with American firms. Ohio State administrators also noted the disconnect between an H1-B visa holder’s residency intent and his purported intent in pursuing an H1-B visa, and outlined the insufficiency of other visa routes – such as the O visa or the J visa – for retaining sufficient numbers of talented international graduates. Ohio State faculty expressed a desire to broaden the discussion to all graduate students rather than just STEM students, and to remember low skilled immigrant workers, many of whom are undocumented, in pursuing and crafting immigration reform.

The Acting Secretary outlined a number of President Obama’s proposals to streamline the legal immigration process. The President has suggested the following:


1)    1)  “Stapling” a green card (for a legal permanent resident) to PhD’s and Master’s degrees in STEM fields. In this way, graduates in these fields at the highest academic levels would already have legal  authorization to live and work in  the United States.

2)     2) Creating a new “start-up” visa that would be available for international entrepreneurs that have capital and want to invest and begin a business in the United States.

3)    3) Expanding the H1-B visa program by increasing the number of H1-B visas available, removing spouses of recipients from the cap or both.


Finally, other participants suggested that the Department of Labor add U.S. graduate school graduates to schedule A, streamlining their hiring process. Acting Secretary Harris closed the meeting and promised to take the insights gleaned from the discussion back with him to Washington.

If you are interested in learning more, as ever, please don’t hesitate to contact me.




Nolan Stevens, J.D.
Public Policy Officer
Ohio Latino Affairs Commission ~ Advise.Connect.Build.
Riffe Center ~ 18th Floor
77 South High Street
Columbus, OH 43215-6108
Office: (614) 466-8333
Direct: (614) 728-8364
Cell: (614) 266-0415
Fax: (614) 995-0896


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