The “immigration issue”: a different view for many

In my role as State Representative I focus on our community and Palmetto State Citizens. From time to time, like each of us, I have an opinion on national issues. Since it appears most people have a certain stigma attached to “the immigration issue”, I thought I’d present another view many not be thinking about.

Just utter the words “immigration bill” and people start to choose sides for a battle, but that shouldn’t be necessary with the Immigration Innovation Act (I-Squared) now pending in the U.S. Senate with strong bipartisan support.

The I-Squared bill is something of a modern miracle. It’s an immigration bill we can all support because it amounts to a substantial high-tech investment in South Carolina’s economy and our schools.

I-Squared is a common sense solution to America’s critical lack of professionals with degrees in the STEM disciplines (science technology, engineering and math).

First I-Squared would modernize the outdated system used b the Immigration bureaucracy to issue the H-1B visas. These are the visas reserved for immigrants with special skills in STEM fields needed by American companies who can’t find the skilled people they need in the U.S. labor force. For 23 years the immigration bureaucracy has kept an annual limit of 65,000 on these visas, even though this doesn’t begin to fill the needs of American companies.

And the increased revenue generated by H1B visas would be used to create a STEM education fund to improve the teaching of STEM subjects in U.S. schools and enable us to increase the woefully inadequate number of STEM grads produced by US colleges and universities.

Demand for these high-skill work visas first outstripped the supply in 1997. And that’s happened every year since 2004. This year’s entire supply of visas was used up in 10 weeks. In 2007 the supply was devoured in less than a day. The fact that this employer demand has continued right through a fierce recession is dramatic testimony to the need for STEM skills.

South Carolina business needs STEM skilled people to grow and not just in the surging tech sector, which has been such a constant bright spot in the state employment picture. STEM people such as computer technicians and mechanical engineers are needed to support non-tech industries as well. Both our tech and not-so-tech companies depend on STEM-skilled people to keep operating. Under a worst case scenario, if those companies can’t get the visas required to bring the overseas STEM talent they need to South Carolina, pressure would build to move their manufacturing plants to lower cost countries with a home-grown supply of STEM graduates.

It makes sense to increase the number of STEM graduates we produce in South Carolina. But like every other state in the country, we have a long road to travel. According to the latest available figures, only 11 percent of the post high school degrees and certificates awarded here annually are in STEM fields. That’s slightly above the 10.7 percent figure nationally.

Through my longtime association with the South Carolina School Improvement Councils, I’ve watched the state’s committed effort to ratchet up the quality of science and math education in our public schools, the foundation for someday earning a college STEM degree. Once again, like the rest of the states, we have a long road to travel.

Passage of I-Squared would help us get where we need to go on STEM education while we continue to get the STEM-skilled immigrants we need to keep our economic wheels turning. For South Carolina and the rest of America, this legislation is quite simply a good deal.

As always, I’d appreciate your thoughts.