Thanks to our world-class colleges and universities, the Greater Philadelphia region has the advantage of attracting students from around the world. Our challenge is keeping them here. Today, almost one-third of these extraordinary college graduates are from outside the United States and dependent upon visa qualifications to allow them to stay here.

Companies and institutions of higher learning are also dependent upon this talent pool to grow and prosper. Foreign-born students and high-skilled immigrant professionals are critical to the innovation and prosperity of our nation.

The CEO Council for Growth, a group of regional business, civic and higher education leaders, met with our congressional delegation to urge members to pass high-skilled immigration reform in order to ensure that we have the ability to access this foreign-born talent, as well as retain those that we are training on our campuses and in our companies.

It is critical that we retain graduates, whether they are from the U.S. or another country, to fill positions in the region’s knowledge-based industries, particularly in advanced manufacturing, energy, IT, health care, and life sciences. These highly-educated workers help drive innovation, economic growth, and job creation, all of which are essential components for the region to remain competitive in the global economy.

Greater Philadelphia’s foreign-born students are a valuable resource and substantially impact the growth of the region’s economy. Between the years 2002 and 2011, there was a 19.8% increase in the foreign-born student population in the region, with a net gain of 67,918 students. During that same time period, foreign-born students were awarded 33.9% of all master’s degrees and 38.8% of all doctoral degrees in STEM related fields. As a result, Greater Philadelphia ranks third out of the ten largest metro areas in the U. S. in the percentage of foreign-born adults holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. These bright and innovative individuals make significant contributions to all aspects of our economy and it is a loss for both the region, and the country, if talented foreign-born workers who studied in the U.S. are forced to leave, and then compete against us abroad, rather than investing their knowledge and energy here.

It is essential that that the Greater Philadelphia region continue to attract talented workers, including skilled foreign-born workers and entrepreneurs. In 2011, Philadelphia ranked number 11 out of all U.S. metro areas in total number of H-1B visa requests; of these 8,875 requests 73.3% were for STEM occupations.

On behalf of the CEO Council for Growth and the Regional College and University Presidents’ Council, we urge Congress to act swiftly to enact the sensible reforms to our immigration system that were adopted in the Senate. We specifically support the following:

  • Establish a market-based H-1B cap and increase the employment-based green card cap;
  • Exempt STEM graduates from U.S. universities from the annual employment-based visa cap if they have an offer of employment from a U.S. business in a related field;
  • Streamline and improve visa and green card application process;
  • Eliminate the employment-based per-country visa cap;
  • Use new company-paid visa and green card fees to help fund STEM programs in U.S. schools to train the next generation American workforce; and
  • Provide visas and green cards to startup entrepreneurs and advance science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degree holders from U.S. universities.

Collectively, these policies will stimulate growth in our region and will help to ensure that we are educating, and retaining, the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. Now is the time for Washington leaders to act and ensure that the U.S. can continue to compete on the global stage. We urge Congress to enact reforms to the nation’s high-skilled immigration system.

Op-ed contributions by:
Gregory S. Bentley, CEO, Bentley Systems, Inc., CEO Council for Growth member

Helen F. Giles-Gee, PhD, President, University of the Sciences, Regional College and University Presidents’ Council member

Rob Wonderling, President and CEO, Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce & Chairman, CEO Council for Growth