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Don’t banish the world’s best and brightest

Meet Li Juan, a young professional in her mid-twenties from a middle class family in Beijing, China. All her life, her family saved up so she could be educated and potentially work in the United States and, ultimately, live a better life than she would in Beijing. She grew up speaking English in an international preparatory school where the curriculum — and even the teachers — were American. Newly minted with an MBA from an American university, she is ready to join the work force for a specialized job that she’s prepared for virtually all her life. A global company like Motorola would be interested in Li Juan. Her business degree, her fluency in Mandarin and her knowledge of Chinese customs make her highly marketable to this locally based company with a global work force.

You would think that a highly qualified job candidate and a growing company in the scenario above are a perfect match. Unfortunately, this story ends with a missed connection. The reason is archaic U.S. immigration policies limit, discourage and reject the world’s best and brightest to work the United States — even on a temporary basis. The heart of the problem is an obscure, but valuable work visa: the H-1B.

The H-1B visa has become the most sought-after long-term work visa for non-immigrants to temporarily work in the United States for a period of three to six years. It is specifically created to attract more high-skilled workers who cannot be sourced domestically. The number of people who receive the H-1B is capped at 85,000. Because demand almost always exceeds the number of available visas, the federal government relies on a lottery process to award H-1Bs. On April 1, the 85,000 available visas — a supply meant to last for the year — were snapped up in less a week. Just recently, it was announced that an eyebrow raising 172,500 petitions were received, up by more than 48,000 from last year. That supply and demand are drastically out of balance is where the problem begins.

A lottery relying on a computer-based random selection managed by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service — not U.S. employers — chooses who can work in the nation. Only 85,000 visas will be awarded; the remaining job openings go unfilled. The rest of the unlucky applicant pool is given very little recourse but to search for employment opportunities with rival nations with the education received in the United States. Paradoxically, we end up limiting the competitiveness of U.S. companies while educating the work forces of our competitors.

Companies and research institutions based in Chicago and across Illinois could be doing much more than they presently are if they had the specialized employees with the right skill sets, the kind that an appropriate number of H-1B visas would afford. Of all the states in the nation, Illinois employers are among the top five recipients of H-1B visas behind California, New York, Texas and New Jersey. Employers like Motorola, Caterpillar, Abbott Laboratories, Verinon Technology Solutions, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois, and the University of Chicago are large users of the H-1B visa. Employers like these are interested in hiring foreign-born workers — ones graduating from American universities or ones who want to work here — for their unique skills and cultural backgrounds.

But despite a high state unemployment rate, local employers are unable to hire the workers they need, resulting in too many job opportunities chasing too few jobs candidates. In the process, we send the worst possible message to talent pool around the world: your prospects for employment are decided by a game of chance and, if your number doesn’t come up, you will be asked to leave. As a result, U.S. companies miss out on the ability to hire, compete and grow. Opportunities for risk taking, research and innovation go unrealized. Our nation becomes more insular and less global.

To be sure, Chicago has a great story to tell the world about the benefits of living and working in the city. We have world-class companies, seminal universities and research institutions and a burgeoning technology sector, but we also have a rich immigrant tradition. About one in five business owners in Illinois are foreign-born and some of the most iconic companies based right here in Illinois — Sara Lee, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, Boeing, Baxter — all were founded by an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant. Chicago has challenges it must overcome to tell its story, but a broken immigration system that would have us be more a Midwestern city, instead of the global destination, should not be one of them.

If members of the Illinois Congressional Delegation have in interest in Chicago and Illinois having the opportunity to tell its story globally, they should lead, not follow, and pass immigration reform this year before even one more missed connection happens.

Sarah Habansky is vice president of the Illinois Technology Association and a steering committee member of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition.

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