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Microsoft urges immigration reform to fill high-skilled jobs

Robert Scoble

Overall, job growth remains disappointingly slow – the unemployment rate remains stuck above 8 percent. In computer-related fields, though, jobs are going unfilled.

Unemployment in computer and math jobs is a measly 3.4 percent. Companies like Microsoft and Expedia say one remedy is immigration reform, and they’re hopeful Congress will pass a new act to break the logjam.

The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce says it's such an important issue to the Puget Sound region that the group organized a panel discussion Friday with the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Alejandro Mayorkas.

Officials from Microsoft, Expedia, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Washington State University described difficulties they've encountered with current immigration laws. Mayorkas told them he's made it a top priority to improve his agency's customer service.

Tech companies say there aren’t enough qualified workers in the U.S. and they need to hire from overseas. But they say federal laws are standing in their way. They point to the limited supply of H-1B visas and per-country caps on green cards. Those caps mean a country like China gets the same number as a tiny country like Madagascar.

Microsoft attorney Karen Jones says she’s hopeful Congress later this year will pass a law called the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. That would eliminate the per-country quotas for green cards. She says it would do a lot to correct the current system that keeps people in limbo.

"Ten years, for example, where an engineer from India or China has to wait now stuck in the backlog before they can get a green card here in the United States," Jones said.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley had stalled the act because he was concerned about visa fraud. In July, he said he’s now going to let it go forward because the act will include more oversight to root out fraud. The measure already passed in the House last year.

Microsoft attorney Karen Jones says she doubts anything will happen before the election, but she hopes the Senate will okay the bill after that.

When asked why Microsoft needs foreign workers when so many Americans are unemployed, Jones said it's a matter of workers having the proper training. She says Microsoft has been investing for years in so-called STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in the U.S. But that's a long-term initiative.

"We really have a significant responsibility to invest in building the pipeline of STEM talent in the U.S. And we have stepped up," Jones said. "But there will always be a need, and there’s an especially critical need right now to supplement the talent we find here in the U.S. with the best workers from around the world."

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.