PublishedFebruary 8, 2011

Employers’ Important Role in Skilled Immigration

At a Brookings event Monday on high skilled immigration policy, Dr. Jeanne Batalova of the Migration Policy Institute presented her “Brain Waste” study on how many college-educated immigrants are working in unskilled jobs. The study also seemed to point to the importance of employers having a role in the selection of skilled immigrants.

Dr. Batalova’s study showed that 21% of college-educated immigrants are working in unskilled jobs and another 22% are in semi-skilled jobs. However, the study also showed that there was a wide disparity according to the visa category through which the immigrant was admitted for permanent residence. While Family, Refugee and Diversity admissions saw skill level drop-offs between their job abroad and their U.S. job, those with employment-based green cards had very little drop-off. As Professor Jennifer Hunt of McGill University observed, this may be due to the fact that EB green cards are sponsored by employers, and perhaps they know best.

Another panelist, Professor David Hart of George Mason University, presented a study on the impact of high-tech immigrants on entrepreneurship. Professor Hart called for expanding the supply of immigrants with entrepreneurial qualities, and suggested such policy ideas as clearing the green card backlog, fast-tracking those with successful careers, and loosening the link between immigration and employment by creating a “point” system for green cards. The first two are certainly effective ideas, but I believe the “point” system would be problematic.

A points system for green cards is an idea that was included in the failed Senate immigration reform legislation of 2007. Instead of employers selecting and sponsoring the workers with the specific skills they need, it would have left employers to choose from a pool of candidates selected through a set of generic government-determined points criteria. While it makes sense to admit more qualified immigrants, it does not make sense to cut employers out of the process of matching the required skills to the position. It would be like an NFL draft in which teams were forced to select “the best athlete available,” regardless of the team’s position needs. Any system that fails to take into account the demand side of what skills employers need, and seeks to impose a government-approved supply of foreign workers (whether through a points system or limits designated by a federal commission) will not be workable, and may very well result in an increase in the “brain waste” chronicled by Dr. Batalova.

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