Keep the geeks!
The borough’s tech gurus and economic activists are watching Congress with baited breath as it debates a set of immigration reforms which would increase the number of the nation’s highly skilled workers in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM fields.
The U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee on May 20 approved a bill for the full Senate that would make it easier for foreign students specializing in STEM fields to gain permanent residency, known as an H1-B. It also lifts limits on immigrants from certain countries, which also opens the door to more entrants from countries that produce STEM-centric workers.
The provision comes just as the city is building what it hopes will become its own Silicon Valley, with an applied-sciences grad school called Cornell NYC Tech being on Roosevelt Island.
Many are hoping it will lead to more jobs for the borough, and potentially make Queens the city’s home for dot-com and tech business.
The bill comes at a time when the U.S. produces only about half of all its engineering students, according published reports. The other half comes from abroad to study in American universities and colleges, but inevitably leave when their student visas are up.
“It makes no sense that America is educating the world’s smartest and most talented students and then, once they are at their full potential and mastered their craft, kicking them out the door,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) in a statement. “We should be encouraging every brilliant and well-educated immigrant to stay here, build a business here, create wealth here, employ people here, and grow our economy. Our legislation will help ensure that the next eBay, the next Google, the next Intel will be started in New York City, not in Shanghai or Bangalore or London.”
The city already has a burgeoning “Silicon Alley,” spanning the Flatiron District in Manhattan to DUMBO in Brooklyn and Long Island City in Queens.
Jukay Hsu, founder of LIC-based tech nonprofit the Coalition for Queens, said immigration reform is integral to changing the face of the borough’s jobs economy.
Only about one-fourth of the city’s available developer jobs are filled right now, according to Hsu.
“There’s just not enough people with the talent and skills to enter the workforce,” he said. “That’s both helping American existing workers and others.”
The switch to tech would be a unique switch for a borough once known for its distinct blue-collar, manufacturing history.
“We have a dearth of manufacturing. I think there are opportunities in Queens,” said the Queens Chamber of Commerce’s Vice President Jack Friedman. “We have a lot of vacant spaces. If companies felt that they can come here and find the appropriate candidates for jobs, they would. They’re not going to come here without a job force.”
For Hsu, every graduate lost to visa issues is another potential job-creating company out the door.
“We train a lot of engineers,” he said. “Oftentimes, concepts are started while working on projects. They have to go take their ideas somewhere else.”
The immigration reform measure, after passing the committee, is headed to the floor of the Senate. The House does not currently have a companion bill.