Between 1990 and 2000, Louisville’s foreign-born population more than doubled. Between 2000 and 2012, the foreign-born population accounted for nearly half (48.1 precent) of Louisville’s population growth, and over the past five years, all net migration to Jefferson County has been due to international immigration.
Understanding these trends is crucial if Louisville is to thrive in the global economy. Any growth in our foreign-born population has largely been organic, rather than the result of long-term strategic planning.
Compared to its peer cities and the United States, foreign-born residents made up a smaller percentage of the total population in 2014, and Louisville ranks in the middle among peer cities, with 8 percent of its population born abroad.
Today we are at a crossroads, both as a city and a nation, with respect to how we view immigration. In an election year, most of the rhetoric is aimed at the undocumented population, with little substantive understanding or awareness of our existing system, or how to modernize it to reflect the momentous changes that have taken place globally.
Little is mentioned about the outdated and inefficient legal system for employment-based immigration, which greatly impacts our ability to retain foreign students and provide employers with a skilled labor force.
For instance, the only temporary visa category we have for high-skilled workers, the H-1B visa, is operated through a random lottery, regardless of industry, geographic location or position. It is capped at 65,000 visas per year, with an additional 20,000 reserved for U.S. master’s degree holders.
This is the most common pipeline for foreign students to find employers and for employers to utilize the pool of foreign talent already in the country. All told, more than a million foreign students are in the U.S., with the majority coming from China and India, and the majority of those students holding advanced degrees in STEM fields. This is a direct supply source for STEM-educated workers with the exact skills that employers need.
To put this into perspective, in 2015, USCIS received 233,000 applications to fill these H-1b slots. This gave most employers little over a 30 percent chance that their application would even be selected for review, notwithstanding the needs of the employer, nor the merits of the employee.
While the U.S. has long been the biggest magnet for global talent, this position can no longer be taken for granted. The 2015 Global Talent Competitiveness Index ranked the U.S. fourth in the world, behind top-ranked Switzerland, Singapore and Luxembourg. And despite having the largest number of international students, the U.S. share of international students worldwide has been steadily declining—from 28 percent in 2001, to 19 percent in 2012.
Louisville has the second lowest rate of foreign student enrollment as a percentage of the total, and lags behind the national average of those students who found employment and were able to maintain residence in the Metro area.
At the same time, other countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada have seen significant growth in their market share of international students — thanks primarily to aggressive recruitment strategies and progressive immigration policies. Our international enrollment as a percentage of total remains relatively small, at 3.9 percent, compared to 26 percent in Australia and 19 percent in the UK.
As a nation, we should be prioritizing economic needs, tailoring immigration policies to the needs of sectors and regions, simplifying immigration processes, retaining international students, granting visas to immigrant entrepreneurs, adapting to changing conditions, and recruiting expatriate talent.
However, given the current political climate, there is little expectation of major immigration reform anytime soon, and in the face of federal inaction, cities and states are taking matters into their own hands.
If Louisville is to successfully attract and retain skilled foreign talent, we must understand the intricacies of our existing immigration system and harness existing migration patterns. We can do this by:
- Leveraging data from our college and university systems to identify how many foreign students are currently in our region and their fields of study.
- Build awareness of the immigration system within our business and entrepreneurial community to ensure that informed hiring decisions can be made in relation to employing foreign workers.
- Identify skills gaps and local labor market needs.
- Create a pipeline between foreign students and employers that is aimed at pairing desired skill sets with qualified workers.
- Understanding and utilizing mechanisms in our existing immigration system that would allow STEM-educated entrepreneurs to start businesses in our community.
Along with global competition for talent, Louisville is also competing with cities like Detroit, Austin, and Nashville. We must find ways to harness global migration patterns to address the real labor market challenges that we face today, if we are to maintain our global competitiveness.
Nirupama Kulkarni is managing attorney with Indus Law Firm, which practices federal immigration law.
SOURCE: COURIER JOURNAL