White House Pushes Skilled Worker Visas

In a bid to spur job creation and promote startups, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services has announced new efforts to attract foreign talent to American shores.

Specifically, the administration is promoting two kinds of visas -- known as the H-1B and the EB-2 visa -- by making the application process more transparent, and by releasing a set of guidelines to clarify the necessary requirements for skilled foreign nationals hoping to enter the U.S.

In addition, the administration is "streamlining" the application process for what is known as the EB-5 "immigrant investor" program, which allows foreign nationals who have significantly invested in American companies to qualify for a green card.

The Tuesday announcement reflects an increased push to reform legal immigration for skilled workers, though it stops short of any concrete legislative changes. Speaking to HuffPost, USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas explained that the effort was simply one to clarify -- and not amend -- current immigration policy.

"We have laws currently in place … and we are making sure those policies are fully understood," he said. "This is independent of immigration reform."

Business interests -- in particular those in the high tech sector -- hailed the efforts by the administration to bring and retain top tier talent. In an interview with HuffPost, Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel, called the effort a "really welcome development. It shows the administration is trying to do what business leaders, including Mayor Bloomberg and others, have called for. Namely, to open our doors to talented foreign nationals."

Yet while Shotwell maintained that it was "a step in the right direction," she noted that "we have to see how much it changes current adjudication."

Others lauded the administration's efforts to untie legal immigration from the thorny and often divisive issue of illegal immigration. "We've been [working on] this issue for several years -- making it easier for high tech workers to come to the U.S.," said Emily Mendell, spokesperson for the National Venture Capital Association. "The problem has been the reluctance of Congress to separate illegal reform from legal reform. The key to having this move forward is the ability of Congress to separate the two."

Steve Case, a member of the president's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness (and the former CEO of HuffPost parent company AOL), said, "Immigration is a sensitive, complex and emotional issue -- there's a lot of history to it. My view is that, notwithstanding that, you have to focus on the main event right now, which is the economy and jobs."

He continued, "The data we have says the best source of job creation is high-growth entrepreneurial companies. If you want to create jobs, you have to focus on entrepreneurship and the global war for talent."

But for some advocates, the splitting of legal from illegal immigration is cause for concern. Leading immigration reform advocate Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) acknowledged the difficulty of passing any sort of comprehensive reform in such a hyper-partisan political climate, and underscored the necessity to launch administrative efforts to ameliorate the system, rather than simply rely on broad legislative action.

"We will not get any substantive immigration reform out of this Congress with House Republicans driving the agenda heading into an election year," said Gutierrez. "That's why the focus is on the White House and what the Obama administration can do under current law."

But he cautioned against focusing too much on legal immigration concerns over those of illegal workers. "The one million or so undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children don't have corporate lobbyists, don't host fundraisers, or give big bundled donations, but if you think about it, their contributions to the economy over time will be tremendous," he said. "They are no less important to America's economic future than foreign workers are, and I hope the president takes action on their behalf as well."