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Gates warns on US immigration curbs

Financia Times | March 7, 2007
Kevin Allison

Bill Gates, the chairman of Micro­soft, on Wednesday warned that restrictions on the number of skilled workers allowed to enter the US put the country’s competitiveness at risk.

The comments marked the latest attack on restrictive US immigration policies by the technology industry, which is facing a shortage of skilled workers even as demand for their skills is increasing.

Speaking before the Senate committee on health, education, labour and pensions, Mr Gates said that tighter US immigration policies – governed partly by concerns over terrorism – were “driving away the world’s best and brightest precisely when we need them most”.

“It makes no sense to tell well-trained, highly skilled individuals, many of whom are educated at our top colleges and universities, that the United States does not welcome or value them,” Mr Gates said. “America will find it infinitely more difficult to maintain its technological leadership if it shuts out the very people who are most able to help us compete.”

Mr Gates said that other countries were taking advantage of restrictive US policies by catering to highly skilled workers who would otherwise choose to study, live and work in the US.

“Our lost opportunities are their gains,” he said. “I personally witness the ill effects of these policies on an almost daily basis at Microsoft.”

Mr Gates’s comments on immigration were part of a broader warning over the state of US competitiveness.

Mr Gates said he felt “deep anxiety” about the US’s ability to remain competitive if it did not act quickly to improve education, invest in basic science research, and reform its immigration ­policies.

“America cannot maintain its innovation leadership if it does not educate world-class innovators and train its workforce to use innovations effectively. Unfort­unately, available data suggest that we are failing to do so . . . especially in our high schools.”

Mr Gates called on Congress to loosen rules that prevent many foreign students from settling once their studies in the US are complete. He also suggested that Congress speed the process of obtaining permanent resident status for highly skilled workers.

Immigration reform emerged as a key issue among voters in last year’s mid-term elections. However, most of the debate has focused on illegal immigration and whether the US should ­create a guest worker programme for low-skilled immigrants.

The US currently limits visas for skilled foreign workers to 65,000 a year, while the number of green cards, required for permanent resident status is limited to 140,000 a year.

Mr Gates ack­now­ledged concerns over US job losses resulting from immigration but sought to distinguish between the need to encourage more highly skilled workers to enter the US and the broader debate on immigration reform.

“These reforms do not pit US workers against those foreign born,” he said. “Far from displacing US workers, highly skilled foreign-born workers will continue to function as they always have: as job creators.”



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