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Hardly a great time to talk H-1Bs. Still, it's time

Nobody's going to win a popularity contest by advocating we let more foreigners receive U.S. jobs. But now, let's think about the long term.

What with pink slips being handed out all over this country, now is probably the worst time for any political leader to urge a rethinking of our H-1B policy to lift the 65,000 annual limits on foreign guest workers in specialty occupations. It's not the sort of political stance that will play well in Peoria - or in many other places in the U.S. these days.

But it must be said: Maintaining the status quo on H-1B is the best news that China, India, Russia or any other would-be economic superpower could ever want to hear. The reverse brain drain returns smart people with advanced degrees to their countries of origin. And in the increasingly hot, flat and crowded world that the New York Times' Tom Friedman describes in his latest book, these are the sorts of folks every country will covet.

What we're not talking about here are rank-and-file jobs that come and go, depending upon the whims of the business cycle. This is the next generation of superstar engineers and entrepreneurs, who clearly will leave their mark. The only question is where.

"The current rules are nuts," adds Bob Muglia, a senior executive at Microsoft.

In particular, he pointed to the process in which foreigners, who get educated in the U.S., wind up getting exported back to their home countries. "It's crazy," he said, drawing a distinction between "highly-trained people and migrant farm workers."

His is a common refrain among tech types. This was the second consecutive year in which the federal government got swamped by applications well in excess of the annual 65,000 limit for H-1B visas within days of opening the visa window.

Barack Obama surely must be getting an earful about this from trusted tech advisors, like Google's Eric Schmidt and Xerox's Anne Mulcahy. What's more, computer industry executives, who have long chafed at numerical ceilings on the H-1B, are likely to take a more assertive tone after the new administration takes office next January.

That's the only way to get the ball moving. They haven't been happy with the situation for quite some time and in conversations, it's clear that their frustration is at the boiling point.

"It's the most ridiculous thing that I've ever seen," says Seagate CEO, Bill Watkins and the vice chairman of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. "We train them and then don't let them stay here? Come on. More than half the companies in the (Silicon) Valley were formed by immigrants. You don't see that happening in the last three years."

Nobody's going to win a popularity contest by advocating we let more foreigners receive U.S. jobs. But now let's think about the long-term. For Watkins, a strong proponent of "getting "American companies to identify with America," the deadlock on over H-1Bs is yet more proof of rules and regulations which ultimately work against the country's economic self interest.

Seagate CEO Bill Watkins

"I've been moving operations offshore because that's where my grads are," he said. "It's a ridiculous situation that we're in."

Last spring, the SVLG traveled to Washington D.C. to make its case. Unfortunately for SVLG, its timing wasn't the best. Congress was then more concerned about illegal immigration and the fairness of bringing "cheaper" H-1B candidates into the country. The upshot: Nothing got done. f

For what it's worth, here's what they were asking for.

•  Raise the H-1B cap and allow it to fluctuate to reflect market demand and unemployment rates

•  Exempt US advanced degree graduates from the H-1B cap

•  Apply existing 20,000 H-1B set-aside to foreign university advanced degree STEM graduates (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics)

•  Increase the employment-based Green Card cap to reduce and prevent future backlogs

•  Exempt US advanced degree graduates, as well as foreign advanced degree STEM with US work experience from the Green Card Cap

•  Exempt from the green card cap those spouses and children of green card recipients

Once again, their timing is bad. The most recent employment report was abysmal the news isn't likely going to get much better anytime soon. I think an H-1B rethink is a good idea but try selling that one when unemployment is nearing double digits. When it comes to long-term thinking, most of us usually fall in with the short termers.