BY MIKE FREEMAN FEBRUARY 6, 2013
Qualcomm Chief Executive Paul Jacobs has often criticized current immigration law, saying it makes it hard to hire foreign-born engineering graduates when the company recruits at U.S. universities.
On Tuesday, Jacobs got the chance to make that pitch directly to President Barack Obama as one of about 10 business leaders invited to the White House to discuss immigration reform.
Jacobs joined chief executives from Motorola Solutions, Goldman Sachs, Yahoo, Marriott, Alcoa, United/Continental and other firms in the private meeting with the president, who has made immigration reform a priority of his second term.
Jacobs was unavailable Wednesday for an interview. But Qualcomm issued a statement saying the San Diego company supports comprehensive changes to the nation’s immigration laws.
“Highly skilled immigrants are critical to innovation and are important contributors to economic growth in the United States,” said Jacobs. “As a company that employs and hires thousands of engineers, we believe it’s critical that we do everything possible to welcome the most talented inventors to our shores by updating immigration rules that disadvantage U.S. companies.”
Qualcomm’s gripe with current law centers on caps and restrictions on temporary work visas and permanent green cards for foreign workers.
For example, one rule forbids spouses of workers with temporary visas from seeking jobs in the U.S., said Alice Tornquist, Qualcomm’s vice president of public affairs based in Washington, D.C. Caps on the number of green cards issued each year can result in foreign-born graduates of U.S. universities waiting years — sometimes a decade — to be cleared to work here permanently.
Supporters of reform say these hurdles discourage not only foreign-born, highly skilled workers but also noncitizen entrepreneurs from founding companies and creating jobs.
“We don’t know to what extent we’re losing talent, brilliant people, who just decide upon graduation not to pursue employment in the United States,” said Tornquist. “We’re making it impossible.”
A bill recently introduced in the Senate raises caps on annual temporary work visas and exempts certain jobs from the green-card limits in fields such as science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM.
“So a STEM graduate from a U.S. university with an advanced degree — master’s or above — with a job offer in a science, technology, engineering or math field, would get a green card without waiting,” said Tornquist.
Critics of loosening rules for highly skilled immigrants say many U.S. citizens with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math can’t find jobs in those fields, said John Skrentny, a sociology professor and director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego.
“For example, about 15 million Americans have STEM degrees, but only 5 million work in STEM,” he said. “Where do these STEM workers go? It’s not clear.”
U.S. computer programmers have complained that they are replaced by cheaper foreign workers here on temporary work visas, added Skrentny. “Some also argue that employers refuse to train or retrain American workers and prefer to simply import foreigners who have the needed skills,” he wrote.
Lawmakers last tackled comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. Those efforts largely failed. Qualcomm is hoping for a better outcome this time.
“We really look at this opportunity, with comprehensive immigration reform, as the best chance to get the changes that we think are needed,” said Tornquist.