Federal quotas on H-1B visas, capped at 65,000 last year, have long been a sore spot for Microsoft and other technology companies. But, Gates said, the increased caliber of research institutions in China and India means that curbs on immigration and guest-workers will pose a greater threat to America's competitiveness than ever before.
Gates' comments verged on sarcastic. He said that "it's almost an issue of a centrally-controlled economy versus" and then trailed off. "I'd certainly get rid of the H-1B visa caps," he added when asked what he would do if he could write U.S. laws. "That's one of the easiest decisions."
Princeton University's president, Shirley Tilghman, also warned of increased competition from abroad--and took aim at the federal government's aggressive denials of visas to foreign students after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Students are "not coming in the numbers they used to," Tilghman said.
The number of foreign students dropped in 2003 for the first time in more than 30 years, the Institute of International Education estimated last fall. It attributed the decline to increased competition from foreign universities and far stricter visa rules.
"I think there was a post-9/11 effort to cut down on visas," added Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. "I think this was a mistake."
Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican, was left defending stricter immigration rules. "We can't be so naive as to think there is not a very serious problem" with terrorists entering the country, he said.
Microsoft Research head Rick Rashid gave the example of a Microsoft employee in China who was barred by the U.S. government from attending a meeting in the United States after she got married. Gates said even Canadian employees have received similarly poor treatment: "It doesn't make any sense. We'll have Canadians sitting on the border until some bureaucratic thing happens."