Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 8:27 AM
Most of the talk about immigration in this country has to do with illegal immigration -- borders, fences, and unskilled labor. This week on Morning Edition, we're exploring a different side of the issue: the demand for highly skilled immigrants and the barriers they face in coming to the United States. Yesterday we profiled Vivek Wadhwa. He's an Indian-American entrepreneur, who favors reducing many of those barriers. Today, we thought we'd take his ideas a step further. How can specific companies benefit from these high skilled immigrants? And more importantly, would northeast Ohio as a region be better off if we let more of them in?
Situated in an non descript business park in Valley View -- ten miles south of Cleveland is a company called Overdrive. It creates software that allows customers to download books and movies on the internet. CEO Steve Potash says he's having to turn away new business.
POTASH: With a finite number of software programmers, testers, product managers and a full schedule of commitments. How do we say yes to this new business without straining our resources?
Potash says the vast majority of his employees are from northeast Ohio. But many of the most experienced software developers live on the coast...and he says Cleveland can be a tough sell.
POTASH: And in some cases it can be a direct non starter.
Potash is among a growing number of CEOs -- especially in the tech sector -- who've begun to mine talent from overseas. Getting high skilled immigrants to the U-S requires obtaining a visa -- a complex process that keeps people like Richard Herman employed. He's a Cleveland-based immigration attorney who helps companies navigate the system.
HERMAN: We have a professional worker program called the H1B. We have about 65 thousand H1Bs available per fiscal year. This most recent year all 65-thousand were exhausted on the first day.
That's not nearly enough to fill the talent demand, Herman says. And that's led some companies to open offices in places outside the U-S where there are fewer barriers to immigration.
HERMAN: Probably the most startling example is what happened this summer. Bill Gates and Microsoft opened up an R&D facility in Canada. Expressly stating that the reason for that R&D facility was because of the unavailability of H1B visas.
Herman says when Clevelanders talk about economic development -- talent is too often not part of the picture. So more than a dozen organizations have come together to strategize on ways to allow more skilled immigrants into the country.
One proposal is to create immigration zones, where many of the visa barriers would be reduced. The thinking is, existing businesses would expand and Microsoft might open that office in Cleveland instead of Canada.
But not everyone is enthusiastic about that idea.
Jack Martin is special projects director of the Federation For American Immigration Reform -- a Washington-based group that favors reducing the number of high skilled immigrants coming into the United States. He believes that foreign-born workers drive down wages.
MARTIN: Unsurprisingly if the number of workers with a particular skill set is increased, then wages go down. It's the law of supply and demand.
BANEY: No, no, that's a big misconception.
That's Gary Baney, CEO of Boundless Flight, a Cleveland-based software company.
BANEY: The INS basically insures that you're paying them the prevailing wage when you hire them.
And, Baney says, immigrants also require an investment upfront.
BANEY: The last person we brought in from Romania, we spent ten thousand dollars just getting their INS papers processed. So before we've generated even a dime of revenue, we've paid that money out of our coffers to get the immigration papers completed.
Aside from the issue of wages, some opponents of immigration zones favor re-training the existing workforce to perform these high tech jobs. That's all well and good, says Mark Santo, CEO of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs. But Santo says immigration reform also needs to be part of the equation.
SANTO: We need to fill these jobs now. And talent attraction is the way to fill them. We can't wait until we train a whole generation of knowledge workers.
At this point, the immigration zone proposal is just in the talking stages. It's beginning to get the attention and support of some foundations. But it's an issue lawmakers seem hesitant to touch. Santo thinks he knows why.
SANTO: Unfortunately that gets painted with the same brush as illegal immigration. About people coming over the border illegally.
ME: Is there anybody in Congress who you think really gets this concept? (three seconds of sillence).
SANTO: I think the silence speaks volumes.