Miles Hansen: Lee’s immigration bill will give Silicon Slopes the high-tech workers it needs

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, at news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015 (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Utah’s tech economy is booming, yet despite unprecedented growth, many business leaders share a common challenge in realizing their global potential. The problem isn’t a lack of innovative ideas. It’s a lack of high-skilled labor.

In Utah, like many places around the country, tech CEOs have maxed out their local talent pool and are looking to hire foreign-born workers to keep their companies thriving. Yet under an outdated and inefficient immigration system that allows only 7 percent of applicants from a given country to apply for employment-based green cards each year, they’re not able to get the workers they need.

This means that high-skilled workers from populous countries like India or China must wait decades before their visas are approved (up to 151 years for Indians with advanced degrees). This system hurts Utah’s economy, especially our Silicon Slopes tech sector that’s growing twice as fast as other industries in Utah and creates 300,000 jobs.

As president and CEO of World Trade Center Utah, it’s a story I hear over and over. One tech company in Sandy recently had to turn down significant new business opportunities because such visa restrictions made it impossible to bring on several qualified workers from India who were needed to meet growing demand.

That’s why I am grateful for Sen. Mike Lee’s leadership in introducing legislation called the “Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act” that would remove the per-country cap for employment-based visas.

Yet the bill is currently stalled in the Senate, despite receiving bipartisan sponsorship and support – including 19 Republicans and 16 Democrats – and overwhelmingly passed in the House last summer, thanks in part to all four members of Utah’s congressional delegation.Clearly, leaders across the nation understand why reform is good for business and our immigration system. With so much at stake, World Trade Center Utah is calling on the Senate to find common ground and pass legislation that would keep Utah at the forefront of global innovation.

Utah is in desperate need of high-skilled workers. A new report by University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute found that Utah’s tech community led the country with a 16.6 percent growth rate – three times as fast as the rest of the country’s tech hubs– and supports a whopping one-fifth of Utah’s overall economy. At the same time, there were 17 STEM jobs posted online, for each unemployed worker in Utah in 2016.

Immigrants are key to filling that gap. Last year, nearly 38 percent of all visas for all industries in Utah went to immigrants in tech. The foreign-born workers who are waiting for employment-based green cards that are the subject of Sen. Lee’s bill are even more valuable; some 58 percent are classified as having “extraordinary ability,” and 13 percent have advanced degrees, according to New American Economy. Overall, Utah’s more than 272,000 immigrants have long been important contributors to our state’s economy, generating $5.3 billion in spending power and starting businesses at higher rates than the U.S.-born population.

But economic arguments aren’t the only reason to overhaul the arbitrary country-caps system. The human reasons are important, too. Regardless of where we’re born, we all share a basic desire to put down roots, buy a home, keep our children at the same schools and create deep ties with our neighbors and communities. These talented foreigners can’t wait in limbo for years. Anecdotal evidence shows the difficulties in getting visas is driving talented immigrants to other countries like Canada that will benefit from our loss.

I encourage our Senate leadership to show voters that consensus and real immigration reform is possible. This is a clear step in the right direction. Pass legislation to end arbitrary country caps now.

Miles Hansen | World Trade Center Utah

Miles Hansen is the president and CEO of World Trade Center Utah.