Arizona needs highly skilled international workers to sustain its economy today

Opinion: Federal law makes it difficult to bring highly skilled workers into the country. And while Arizona is training the next generation for STEM fields, we need workers today.

Todd Sanders
opinion contributor

Arizona experienced record-breaking economic development this fiscal year. As we embark on 2022, I am concerned this growth could be short-lived if America doesn’t do a better job of welcoming foreign-born talent.

Arizona has more than 70,000 immigrant entrepreneurs contributing $1.7 billion in business income.

That’s not surprising; Phoenix has been recognized as a startup-friendly city with minimal red tape, a low cost of living and a supportive environment.

We’re losing talent to other nations

But it’s not easy for international founders to get here in the first place. The United States does not offer them permanent residency; under the current International Entrepreneur Parole program, an immigrant entrepreneur can stay a maximum of five years.

In fact, our immigration system puts them through so many bureaucratic hassles that many are choosing to launch their companies in other countries.

Last month, the White House introduced new policies that should make it easier for some immigrant founders to start their own companies.

If they can demonstrate that their proposed companies benefit the national interest – because they’ll provide employment opportunities or lead to important STEM innovations – they might be able to secure a green card.

There’s an agonizing backlog of green cards

This change is important, but it doesn’t go far enough. It won’t do much to help the 1.2 million high-skilled workers from India and China who are stuck in an agonizing green card backlog. And it doesn’t make entrepreneurship widely accessible to other kinds of international talent.

Welcoming the world’s brightest minds into our state gives Arizona – and America – a competitive edge. Research shows that foreign-born business owners account for a disproportionate number of patents for new technologies. Immigrants launch businesses at incredibly high rates, according to New American Economy. In 2021 alone, 44% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.

As a dual citizen of the United States and Colombia who came to Arizona in grade school, I understand that drive personally. Immigrants seek to prove themselves and find a way to contribute to their new countries. Because they grew up in different cultures, they often bring unique perspectives to solving problems.

But our visa policy has obstructed this kind of innovation. Highly skilled workers on temporary H-1B visas are tied to their employers; if they leave their jobs to launch a business, they lose legal status.

The new White House policies will help some immigrants on temporary visas circumvent this Catch-22, but only a limited pool. And a more fundamental problem remains: High-skilled visas are distributed via lottery, and the demand far surpasses the supply – in 2021, there were 300,000 applications for 85,000 spots.

Our current worker shortage is proof of the problem with policies that were implemented decades ago.

We need to let more people with the right skills in the door and provide security for the more than a million high-skilled workers in the green card backlog – many of whom have been waiting decades. Nearly 200,000 could die before their applications are processed, according to one estimate.

Congress should also consider raising the H-1B visa cap to meet demand.

We are currently training the next generation of bright Arizonans in STEM fields. But we also need a reliable supply of workers today. That means helping skilled individuals from abroad fill empty roles in manufacturing, computer coding and health care.

Our state’s economy depends on a streamlined, functional immigration process to bring in the people we need. Phoenix taxpayers deserve no less.

We already know we’ll get through this pandemic with grace and resilience. Let’s make sure we welcome the talent to help us succeed in the long run.

Todd Sanders is the president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber. On Twitter: @TSandersGPC.

Posted by Jocelyn McAlpin