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Unlocking Potential of High Skilled Immigrants to Support the U.S. Economy

While high-skilled legal immigrants can be essential to a competitive and robust economy, the outdated U.S. immigration system creates significant barriers to retaining them, often discouraging qualified individuals who were educated and trained in the U.S. from working here permanently. A recent BPC-Morning Consult poll showed that many Americans support efforts to retain high-skilled immigrants, and believe they have a positive impact on the U.S. economy. Research has shown that skilled immigrants drive innovation, create jobs, and fill critical labor gaps. Moreover, persistent labor shortages, a result of an aging U.S. population, coupled with declining birth rates require innovative solutions to ensure an adequate supply of workers to fill in-demand skilled positions. Policy action focused on retaining current immigrant workers and attracting more high-skilled immigrants would ensure the U.S. has the workforce to maintain competitiveness.

Importance of and need for high-skilled immigrants

High-skilled immigrants could have a central role in advancing efforts to support innovative research by increasing the number of professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields that are in dire need of talent. Based on classifications created by the Standard Occupational Classification Policy Committee, STEM workers include computer and mathematical occupations, engineers and engineering technicians, life scientists, physical scientists, social scientists, science technicians, and STEM managers. The work of skilled foreign employees complements the work done by their native counterparts. Examples of complementary occupations are office and administrative support workers and financial specialists; and health and personal care aids and doctors and surgeons. Research has found that the work done by high skill immigrants, particularly in the STEM industry, boosts economic growth per capita and increases overall wages for workers

Meanwhile, U.S. Census Bureau data suggests that the American education system does not produce enough STEM professionals, further highlighting the need for increasing and retaining high-skilled immigrants. Specifically, three out of every four undergraduates with a STEM degree go on to work outside of the STEM field after graduating. However, of international students studying in the U.S., nearly half are enrolled in STEM-related programs and more than one-third of all doctorates in science and engineering are international students. While some students will return home upon completion of their degree, many of these students hope to stay permanently and participate in the labor market.

Barriers to entry and retention

Yet high-skilled foreign students face significant barriers in coming to and staying in the U.S. due to complicated immigration processes, long wait times, and limited availability of visas. H-1B visas are the primary immigration pathway for workers with at least a bachelor’s degree. For those lucky enough to get one of the coveted 85,000 visas issued by lottery to employers each year, transitioning from H-1B status to permanent residency can take several years and a green card is not guaranteed. The process is not only difficult for immigrants but complicates the hiring processes for U.S. companies when hires are dependent on acquiring a green card within a short timeframe. To boost their chances of receiving H-1B visas for foreign hires, some companies have attempted to game the system by entering applicants into the lottery multiple times. Others have simply begun shifting their operations to China, India, and Canada. According to a recent survey, 71% of U.S. employers are relocating skilled immigrants who were unable to get authorization to work in the U.S. to countries like Canada. Changes to the H-1B visa process could decrease wait times and increase access to H-1B visas to ease U.S. employers’ ability to retain skilled immigrants.

While Congress remains in a two-decade standoff over comprehensive immigration reform, the majority of American voters recognize the importance of high-skilled immigration. However, the current system’s inadequacies have made it difficult for international talent to come to and remain in the U.S., particularly high-skilled foreign students after graduation, limiting the growth of America’s skilled labor supply.

BPC’s recent report on employment-based immigration reforms suggests some changes that could gain bipartisan support. These changes include: easing pathways for temporary to permanent status, increasing the number of green cards available, and streamlining immigration processes and making them more transparent, all of which could make it easier to attract foreign students and workers for U.S.-based employment. The creation of an Independent Permanent Commission on the Labor Market would allow the visa system to be timelier and more accurately reflect the current workforce needs of the economy. Additionally, policymakers could consider the potential benefits of creating more specialized visa categories to fill skills gaps in various industries.


Persistent labor shortages and declining birth rates have left the U.S. in dire need of skilled workers. Immigrants offer an alternative pool of talent to fill these gaps. Current inadequacies within the immigration system hinder the United States’ ability to retain talent in crucial industries, limiting the growth of the skilled labor supply. Addressing current barriers to high-skilled immigrants will ensure a robust and sustainable workforce that advances the strength of the economy and overall competitiveness of the country.

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