Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told a Senate panel today U.S. immigration policies are slamming the door in the faces of the best and brightest talent at a time when America needs them the most.
It's a door he wants to swing wide open.
Testifying before a committee investigating American global competitiveness, Gates criticized visa policies that restrict foreign-born U.S. college graduates from working in the U.S. and limit citizenship or permanent residency opportunities for scientists and engineers.
"It makes no sense to tell well-trained, highly skilled individuals – many of whom are educated at our top universities -- that they are not welcome here," Gates said. "We have to welcome the great minds in this world, not shut them out of our country."
Gates was particularly critical of H1B visa policies, a non-immigrant classification used by foreigners who are sponsored and employed in specialty fields like technology. In the late 1990s, the government granted almost 200,000 H1B visas a year. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress, citing national security concerns, slashed the number to fewer than 70,000 a year.
"Scientists like Albert Einstein were born abroad but did great work here because we welcomed them," Gates said. "The contributions of such powerful intellects have been vital to many of the great breakthroughs made right here in America."
In the 2007 federal fiscal year, the 65,000 H1B visa allotments ran out four months before the year began. In 2008, H1B visa allotments are projected to be exhausted before college spring graduation ceremonies.
"So for the first time ever, we will not be able to seek H1Bs for this year's graduating students," Gates said. "Students can't apply until they get a degree and then they [visas] are already gone.
"We need to encourage the best students from abroad to enroll in our colleges and universities and remain here when they finish their studies," he said. "Today we take exactly the opposite approach."
The push for increasing H1B visas has been an agenda topper for the technology industry for several years. While many members of Congress have endorsed the idea of increasing the H1B cap, the issue is tied to the larger, politically sensitive topic of immigration reform where Congress remains deadlocked.
Two years ago, Gates came to Capitol Hill and made a similar pitch to lawmakers, suggesting Congress simply "get rid" of the H1B cap. Wednesday morning, he returned to that theme.
"I think it might not be realistic, but there shouldn't be any limit," he said. "I guarantee that the IT industry will be here to extend invitations to the smart people."
Gates also said if the government doesn't make it easier for foreign scientists and engineers to obtain permanent U.S. residency, the talent would flow to India and China. Currently, obtaining a green card can take up to five years.
"We should expedite the path [for foreign workers] into our workforce and into permanent resident status," Gates said. "These employees are vital to U.S. competitiveness, and we should encourage them to become permanent U.S. residents so they drive innovation and growth alongside America's native-born talent."
Beyond visa issues, Gates said the U.S. needs to increase its math and science education for grades K-12 and increase funding for all levels of research and development, including enacting a permanent R&D tax credit.
He also said any set of goals for global competitiveness should begin with fixing the problems in the U.S. educational system, noting that the U.S. has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the industrialized world.
"Unless we transform the American high school, we will limit economic opportunities for millions of young Americans," Gates said. "We must equip America's students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in today's knowledge economy."
While praising the achievements of American technology in such areas as computing, health care, telecommunications and manufacturing, Gates said he is unsure the U.S. will remain a world leader without fundamental reforms.
"Too often, it seems we are content to live off the investments that previous generations made," he said. "We are failing to live up to our obligations to make the investments needed to make sure the U.S. remains competitive in the future.
"My feeling of pride is mixed with deep anxiety."