Passing Orrin Hatch's Torch on High-Skill Immigration?

As the immigration policy-fueled government shutdown drags on, new Sen. Mitt Romney has pledged to oppose President Donald Trump on any action that runs counter to public interest or misrepresents the public character of the nation, including on immigration. A good start would simply pick up where his Utah predecessor, Orrin Hatch, left off.

Hatch was a champion for high-skill immigration reform. He repeatedly introduced the Immigration Innovation (I-Squared) Act, which substantially increases the availability of H-1B visas for skilled workers and changes the allocation process, among other reforms. Romney could build on the idea and feature some key improvements to drive innovation and growth in the United States across a variety of sectors.

The I-Squared Act replaces the 65,000-visa cap on H-1Bs with a fluctuating 85,000- to 195,000-cap based how many were issued the previous year. And it retains a reserve of 20,000 visas for those with advanced degrees.

The act also provides work authorization for spouses of H-1B workers (H-4 visa holders). Currently, H-4 employment authorization is only permitted on a case-by-case basis, and the Trump administration acted to end this authorization. The spouses of H-1B workers, many of whom are highly skilled themselves, should be allowed to continue working to support their families.

The well-being of families and children shouldn’t be held hostage by bureaucrats. Spousal work authorization is good for the economy. It’s a pro-family policy that makes the United States a more attractive destination for high-skill immigrants who naturally wish to bring their families with them. High demand for the authorization also discredits the stereotype of the idle immigrant.

A revamped I-Squared Act would do well to retain these provisions. However, several changes and additions could make it even more effective.

The formula in Hatch’s version for allocating visas when demand exceeds the cap is based on education. Applicants with advanced degrees from U.S. institutions get top priority, followed by those with foreign PhDs, then those with a U.S. bachelor’s, and finally any remaining petitions.

While this prioritization system is an improvement over our current random lottery, a system based on the wage offered to the worker is a better alternative. That would ensure visas go to the workers who generate the most value, helping to weed out any unnecessary H-1B petitions. This should be acceptable to people with concerns about the program’s effect on domestic wages (although economic literature strongly suggests those concerns are misplaced).

A revised H-1B visa program should also include a cap exemption or visa reserve for foreign students taking advantage of optional practical training (OPT), a program that allows them to work in their field of study for up to 12 months. A 24-month extension is available for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates. Participants are currently eligible to apply for H-1B visas, but they’re subject to the random lottery like all other petitioners.

An exemption or pool of reserve visas for OPT participants with STEM degrees would retain some of America’s best young talent. Given that some of these students will have been working in the United States for up to three years, greater certainty about their future helps all parties and ensures these talented individuals will continue to contribute.

The H-1B visa program has been a great benefit to the economy since it was first introduced in 1990. But we need an upgrade. The I-Squared Act’s demand-driven adjustable cap is a glimpse of what a 21st century merit-based immigration system could look like, while offering stability and certainty to immigrant families.

It’s time to free up the H-1B program for more qualified applicants while making the visa allocation process fairer. Utah Republicans have shown a willingness to fight the Trump administration’s — and others’ — tunnel vision on immigration. That independent streak presents an opportunity for Mitt Romney to seize the mantle as the Senate’s leading champion of high-skill immigration reform.