Viewpoints: Immigration reform a necessary strategy for U.S. economy

03/16/2014 12:00 AM

03/14/2014 3:48 PM

The United States was founded as a land of opportunity. From the earliest days, our nation has been enriched by people who arrived from across the globe, worked hard and drove progress as they helped establish our nation as the world’s economic leader.

This is no less true today. From across the globe, we continue to receive hundreds of thousands of visa applications every year as people strive to come here to live, work and take part in the American dream. And we are fortunate, for the strength of the U.S. economy rests on our ability to continue to attract the best talent from across the world.

Perhaps no other industries are in more need of talented workers from abroad than the ones we represent: agriculture and technology. And that’s why we’ve joined forces to try to make immigration reform a reality.

Farmworkers may not need diplomas or advanced degrees to get our harvests in on time, but their contributions to the workforce are essential. Farms that grow and distribute labor-intensive crops like fresh vegetables, fruits and dairy products cannot exist without them. Machines have yet to be invented to do the physical work of picking strawberries, tree fruit, or other delicate fruits or vegetables. Strolling the aisles of supermarket produce sections and sitting down to nutritious meals are merely end products of the agricultural workers whose work made those meals possible.

But this domestic, American-grown food supply is very much in jeopardy due to the dramatic decline in the farm labor force. American farmers are increasingly forgoing plans to expand their operations within our borders and looking to offshore the production of our perishable food supply. It is a sobering fact that either we import labor to our fields to do jobs no Americans will do, or we depend on foreign soil for our food. This is why we need legislation that allows us to keep our existing workforce and a modernized agriculture visa program that reflects market realities.

Similarly, the growth of the American economy depends on the energy, innovation and passion of those trained for computer science and engineering professions. Many of the top U.S. technology companies were started by immigrants. Just as important, the technology jobs being filled by high-skilled immigrants have a substantial multiplier effect: Economist Enrico Moretti estimates each technology job typically creates five additional jobs in the U.S. economy.

Even though these high-skilled jobs are high-paying, there remains a large skills gap in today’s American workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. will create annually over the next decade some 120,000 new jobs requiring at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Yet U.S. universities last year produced only 51,000 new bachelor’s degrees in computer science. This shortfall is expected to persist for the foreseeable future.

Our ability to fill this innovation skills gap depends on the contributions of those trained in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, professions – whether they are born in America or abroad. That is why Microsoft has joined the call for immigration-reform legislation that increases the number of H-1B visas and employment-based green cards to better match the demands of today’s economy. That is also why we have called for new investments in STEM education initiatives in U.S. schools to better prepare our next generation of young Americans for the jobs of tomorrow.

Like agriculture, the technology industry competes in a global marketplace. Immigrants have added vitality to American economic growth in many ways across different professions. Yet our outdated immigration system will continue to hamper our ability to grow these industries unless changes are made.

The industry that feeds us and the one that bedazzles us with innovation require human resources. The fact is our economy needs both the skilled farmworker and the skilled engineer. Though we come from different perspectives, we join the same call: to urge Congress to capture this crucial opportunity to act this year on immigration reform that will allow our industries to continue to grow jobs, businesses and prosperity in America.

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