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Report Urges Fewer Restrictions on Skilled Immigrants to U.S.

An expert panel convened by the Council on Foreign Relations has recommended increasing the number of foreign students and skilled workers allowed to enter the United States as part of a comprehensive reform of U.S. immigration policy. "It makes no sense to restrict the immigration of those skilled workers who are highly sought after by many countries, and who would bring the greatest economic benefits to the United States," states the report, issued yesterday, which asserts that the country "is badly mishandling its immigration policy, with serious consequences for its standing in the world."

The 115-page report by the 19-member panel covers all aspects of this controversial subject, including the need to strengthen border security and resolve the status of immigrants living in the country illegally. But it devotes considerable attention to the question of attracting and retaining skilled workers in the natural sciences and engineering. Currently, the annual number of visas awarded to skilled foreign workers is capped at 65,000. Another 20,000 H-1B visas can be given out each year to those who have earned advanced degrees from U.S. universities. In recent years the demand for H-1B visas has greatly exceeded the supply, with the number of requests from companies hitting the ceiling within days of the start of the new cycle on 1 April. This year, however, because of the recession, the number of applications is down sharply and stands at 45,000.

The report argues that the current quota can hinder innovation and make the United States less competitive in the global economy. It recommends that the quota be increased to an unspecified level and that the country allow a greater flow of skilled foreign workers to claim jobs in the United States. It says the current requirement that visa holders offer proof that they do not plan to immigrate is "an anachronism that does not reflect how immigration to the United States actually takes place for most people."

The report also recommends making it easier for graduate students and skilled immigrants to receive green cards, putting them on the road to permanent residency. “We need to create a fast track for students who get graduate degrees from American universities, particularly in science and engineering, to remain in the United States,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the council and project director for the report. “We have to do more to maintain a competitive edge.”

Last month, President Barack Obama invited 30 legislators to the White House to discuss immigration reform. The event was seen as a way for the new president to remind Congress that he cares about the issue without committing his Administration to any specific approach.Congress is not expected to take up the issue this year, however, given the press of other business.