What color is a green card?

Most American don’t know the answer, which is today off-white. Mine is alongside. Presumably it was green once.

I’m an immigrant. I was born and brought up in the UK and came to the US in 1982 on an H-1 visa. After four years I got a green card (which I think was pink in those days) and became a permanent resident. I can live here indefinitely (provided I don’t commit major felonies). Actually, the real timeline is that after 2 years I applied for a green card but it took another couple of years for the government to process the paperwork. There is no upside in good immigration processing since immigrants don’t vote. Imagine the outcry if it took two years to get a passport.

It is one of the strengths of the US that people like me could easily come here and contribute, along with other more significant immigrants such as Sergey Brin, Jerry Yang, Albert Einstein, Bob Hope, John Muir, Carlos Santana and many others. That doesn’t happen much in China or Mexico. The mayor of Vienna is not an American immigrant; Arnold Schwarzenegger came in the other direction.

On a personal note, I’m very grateful for the opportunity that the US gave me.

Most discussion of immigration centers on illegal immigration of poorly educated Mexicans, but all the evidence seems to be that while poor Americans may lose slightly through increased competition for low-paid jobs, they gain even more from things like lower cost food. But as a strategic issue for the US I don’t think this is all that big a deal. The US economy doesn’t stand or fall on the basis of how many Mexicans work here.

Much more important is the idiotic legal immigration policy we have for educated people. The most insane part is allowing students to come here for PhDs (55% of engineering PhDs are foreign-born) and expelling them when they are done, since there is no automatic route to stay here. Plus we make it harder than necessary to come here to study in the first place. First loss, these are just the kind of people that we need here in the US to drive technology businesses. Second loss, even if students go back to their home countries, they go back with a positive image of the US to counter the negative views of people who know little about the country.

The H-1 visa quota for each year opens up on 1st of April and closes immediately since twice as many applications are received that day as are available for the entire year. But those are for visas starting October 1st. When I came to the US either there was no quota or it was much higher than the number of applicants. If a company wanted to hire a qualified candidate from overseas (me) then it applied for a visa, waited about 6 weeks and got it, then the person could start. Today it is impossible to hire someone on that basis since the delay is about 9 months on average until the next October 1st after the next April 1st, and then there is only a 50:50 chance of getting a visa anyway. Companies can’t be bothered with such a lengthy uncertain process.

The result is that H-1 visas have become a way for overseas consulting companies, especially Indian, to apply for large numbers of visas knowing some will get through and their employees can then come here months later. This is not necessarily bad but it also squeezes out everyone else, every talented person that an American company wants to hire from overseas, every student who wants to stay on once they have their doctorate and so on. The best solution if it is politically unacceptable to do the sensible thing and remove the cap, would be to ‘auction off’ the visas. But I don’t mean by paying bids to the government but by using the salary that the employee would receive. The higher the salary paid the easier to get a visa for that employee. The Indian job shops would be ‘outbid’ by PhDs.

I can do no better than to quote James Fallows, an editor at Atlantic Monthly who currently lives in China (and used to live in Japan during its heydey in the late 80s). Here he is talking about an Irishman who lived in southern California but had to move to China because he couldn’t get a visa to remain here:

“I might as well say this in every article I write from overseas: The easier America makes it for talented foreigners to work and study there, the richer, more powerful, and more respected America will be. America’s ability to absorb the world’s talent is the crucial advantage no other culture can match—as long as America doesn’t forfeit this advantage with visa rules written mainly out of fear.”

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