Immigration bill opens way for skilled workers

July 4, 2013 

USA wave

All throughout our state, North Carolinians gathered Thursday in recognition of America’s Independence Day, the day a land of 300-million-plus immigrants celebrates being a nation. Our celebrations are almost exactly as John Adams envisioned them 237 years ago, “solemnized with pomp, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other.”

Some of the proudest among us this July 4th were new immigrants, many of whom were celebrating their first Independence Day as American citizens. And thanks to the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill passed last week by the U.S. Senate, millions of others are closer to realizing their dreams of full American citizenship.

If this fix were easy, it surely would have been accomplished years ago. The bill was only achievable because Republicans and Democrats were able to come together to address one of the nation’s most pressing challenges.

The bill would reform the nation’s high-skilled immigration program and would make a historic investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and computer science education in North Carolina and every other state. The bill also significantly strengthens U.S. border security and establishes a universal employment verification system (E-Verify), which would be implemented within five years. It also provides a tough and fair path to naturalized citizenship.

The bill does more, of course, and some of its measures would have a positive effect on Americans in virtually every corner of the nation. Millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, American businesses, education systems and students throughout the country also stand to benefit.

Like overall immigration reform, these measures were long overdue. The cap on H-1B visas, which allow employers to hire foreign workers to fill vacant high-skilled positions in the U.S., was set more than two decades ago in 1990. Those visas were so insufficient that the yearly allotment of 65,000 was exhausted within just five days earlier this year.

The need for those visas also demonstrates a key challenge for the country: America does not produce enough workers trained in STEM to fill jobs in those fields, which are the second-fastest growing in the nation.

In North Carolina, there will be 230,000 STEM-related jobs by 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, STEM jobs will top 8.6 million, and many will be unfilled if we don’t improve our STEM education pipeline. One of the reasons many in the education field support the bill is that it establishes the only federal stream of funds dedicated to STEM education to all states. This STEM fund will help strengthen STEM education in North Carolina, improve teacher training and expose more students to careers in math, science and technology.

The fund doesn’t cost the taxpayer; it is created with additional fees on the green cards employers use to hire foreign workers to fill their vacant positions.

As the U.S. House of Representatives now turns its attention to immigration reform, leaders in both parties on the House Judiciary Committee have indicated their support for the STEM fund and high-skilled immigration reform. These are all hopeful signs that the legislation will be completed in the coming months and that states throughout the country will gain this critical boost to education.

From immigration to our economy to our education system, there is much to celebrate in this legislation. As we continue to celebrate our nation’s independence, we should also take a moment to acknowledge the Senate’s hard work to ensure we are a stronger and more prosperous nation.

Leonor Clavijo is the executive director of the N.C. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

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