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Could Zone Proposal Offer Alternative to Wholesale Increase of H-1B Visa Cap?

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When I blogged about the (then-pending) rush for H-1B visas in February, I mentioned a couple of proposals designed to satisfy America's growing need for high-tech talent without raising the current H-1B cap.

 

One of those ideas, advocated by Cleveland immigration lawyer Richard Herman, is to create high-skill immigration zones in economically depressed U.S. cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y. Companies that establish operations in these zones would not be subject to H-1B restrictions. Herman thinks legislators will find a geographic-specific proposal -- and one that benefits ailing economies, to boot -- more politically palatable than a wholesale increase of the H-1B cap.

 

The idea is revisited in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story, with Herman suggesting that such a program could be modeled on an existing program, the EB-5, that eases some restrictions -- including visa limits -- in disadvantaged areas like western Pennsylvania in an effort to get foreign investors to send dollars to those areas. Says Herman:

The argument is that these regions are so far behind in knowledge-based economies. ... The knowledge work force still isn't there.

Of course, this might do little to pacify high-tech companies like Oracle, Intel and Microsoft, which are among the biggest U.S. recipients of H-1B visas. It's unclear whether they would be willing to locate some of their operations to U.S. sites deemed eligible rather than to nearshore alternatives like Canada, a step Microsoft took last summer.

 

This kind of proposal also isn't likely to get much play from Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who are keeping their messages as populist as possible as they campaign in Pennsylvania and other states that have suffered from the movement of manufacturing jobs to low-cost countries. Voters there may not be receptive to the idea of giving more jobs -- higher-paying ones, this time -- to non-U.S. natives. Obama already faces a firestorm of negative reaction after his seemingly off-the-cuff remarks about "bitter" and reactionary voters in areas that have suffered large job losses, as TIME reports.

 

Yet John Austin, a Brookings Institute fellow interviewed in the Post-Gazette story, notes that states such as Pennsylvani, Ohio, Michigan and New York could position themselves for economic growth by using their importance in the upcoming presidential election to lobby for the kind of program advocated by Herman and other experts. Says Austin, who directs the Great Lakes Economic Initiative, meant to study and improve Rust Belt economies:

The best economic policy for our region would be a very wide door [for educated immigrants]. It's what's helped Toronto and other places be booming, world-class cities.

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