Geoeconomics Fellow, US and the Americas Programme

US policymakers should give special consideration to a more open immigration policy for highly skilled professionals from the EU. This would ultimately benefit the US economy.

Businessman on bicycle passing skyline of La Defense business district in Paris, France. Photo: EschCollection/Getty Images.Businessman on bicycle passing skyline of La Defense business district in Paris, France. Photo: Getty Images.

Summary

  • The United States and the European Union are deeply integrated economically in terms of movement of goods, services and capital across the Atlantic, but this is not matched by the mobility of labour. Freer movement of high-skilled workers across the Atlantic has a potentially critical role to play in maintaining and strengthening the bilateral economic relationship.
  • Both the US and EU seek to attract high-skilled labour through the use of temporary visa programmes. Various routes are available for highly skilled workers from the EU to temporarily work in the US (for instance, through the H-1B visa for foreign nationals in ‘specialty occupations’, as well as other visa categories for treaty traders and investors, intra-company transferees, and international students seeking work authorization in the US before or after graduation). The main ways for highly skilled workers from the US to temporarily work in EU member states are through EU-wide schemes that apply in 25 out of the 28 member states (for holders of EU Blue Cards or intra-company transferees); or via member states’ parallel national schemes.
  • The experiences of US and EU employers and workers under the US H-1B programme and the EU’s Blue Card scheme differ greatly. The EU Blue Card scheme avoids many of the drawbacks of the H-1B visa. It does not have an annual cap on the number of visas issued. It also grants greater autonomy to the worker by not requiring the employer to sponsor long-term residence, by providing greater flexibility to switch employment, and by having a longer grace period for visa-holders to find new employment after dismissal.
  • The US visa system hampers America’s economic growth. Restrictive policies such as an annual limit on the number of H-1B visas issued, and the associated uncertainty for employees and employers, hinder the ability of US companies to expand and innovate. The complex and costly visa application process is a particular burden for small and medium-sized enterprises. Problems around the timely availability of visas frustrate investors both from the US and from abroad (including from the EU). European firms face difficulties in acquiring visas for intra-company transferees, and not all EU member states have access to the treaty trader and treaty investor visa categories. At times, this impedes foreign direct investment and restricts US job creation. In addition, current policies hinder the economy’s retention of EU and other graduates of US universities. This is of particular concern given that skilled graduates have a critical role to play in addressing the US’s growing shortage of workers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
  • Given the comparability of US and EU wages and labour markets, US concerns about foreign workers ‘stealing’ their jobs or depressing wages generally do not apply to EU citizens. On the contrary, a more open immigration policy for high-skilled workers – in particular for EU citizens – would benefit the US economy.
  • Efforts to reform visa systems for high-skilled labour are under way in both the US and EU. In order to facilitate the movement of highly skilled workers across the Atlantic, this research paper recommends (1) creating a special visa for highly skilled EU citizens to work temporarily in the US; (2) extending the availability of treaty trader and investor visas to all EU member states; and (3) increasing efforts to eliminate fraud and abuse in the H-1B system. These measures could potentially help to create more investment, jobs and economic growth in the US.