Bill Gates beats immigration reform drum

Microsoft chief wants caps lifted on visas for highly skilled workers

Microsoft's Bill Gates arrived on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning and proposed a four-pronged plan he says will help ensure the United States remains "the world's innovation leader." (For a full transcript of Gates' testimony go here.)

Gates stressed to the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology the need for better educational opportunities for American students, increased federal funding for basic scientific research, incentives for private-sector research and development and the loosening of caps on H-1B visas, which allow highly skilled immigrants to work in the U.S.

See a transcript of Bill Gates' testimony in front of Congress.

Gates, who last month called H-1B a disaster, took up his familiar H-1B drum beat less than three weeks before the annual grab for H-1B visas. Last year, the 65,000 available visas were gone a full four months before the start of the fiscal year (October), according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

April 1 is the first day that U.S. immigration authorities accept H-1B applications for the federal government's 2009 federal fiscal year.

"The United States will find it far more difficult to maintain its competitive edge over the next 50 years if it excludes those who are able and willing to help us compete," Gates told the committee. His oral statements were documented in a 19-page written testimony submitted to the committee.

Gates said he was optimistic about the potential for technology to improve peoples' lives and tackle important issues. He repeatedly made references to education and health programs funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which he co-chairs.

But Gates told the committee, which was celebrating its 50th anniversary, that he was less optimistic that the United States would continue as a global leader in technology innovation.

"Evidence is mounting that we are failing to make the investments in our young people, our workers, our scientific research infrastructure, and our economy that will enable us to retain our global innovation leadership," he said.

He said programs must be put in place to help American students acquire the skills they need to succeed in a technology and information driven economy.

"The goal should be to "double the number of science, technology, and mathematics graduates by 2015," he said. And he added that funding is needed to train the next generation of innovators.

On the immigration front, he chided Congress for failing to pass high-skilled immigration reform saying the move "exacerbated an already grave situation."

He said the current base cap of 65,000 H-1B visas is "arbitrarily set and bears no relation to the U.S. economy's demand for skilled professionals."

He cited immigration statistics that show the supply of H-1B visas in 2007 ran out four months before they could even be used. In fiscal 2008, the H-1B visas ran out just one day after applications could be filed.

"If we are to align our immigration policy with global realities and ensure our place as the world's leading innovator, Congress must make additional changes to our employment-based immigration system," he said.

Gates put forth three steps that should be taken by the U.S.: encourage the best foreign students to enroll in U.S. colleges and universities and, to remain in the United States when their studies are completed if they desire; that Congress should create a streamlined path to permanent resident status for highly skilled workers; and third, Congress should increase the cap on visas.

He concluded that the country stands at a crossroads

"If we do not implement policies like those I have outlined today, the center of progress will shift to other nations that are more committed to the pursuit of technical excellence," he said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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