By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – For many Americans, the mention of foreign workers conjures images of chaotic borders to the south or overcrowded boats heading to Europe. That’s the reality for many desperate migrants around the world – as well as governments trying to stem the tide – but it’s only part of the picture.

At the other end of spectrum, there is growing international competition to attract skilled immigrants from around the world. It is a race the United States stands to lose unless Congress moves to bring order to the nation’s immigration policies.

A recent webinar involving diplomats from Canada and Mexico was a reminder that while U.S. policies have stalled the issuance of visas to educated workers from abroad, other nations are scrambling to attract them.

As part of a year-long series on Wisconsin’s role in trade and foreign direct investment, and its partners invited Aaron Annable of Canada’s Midwest regional consulate and Counsel General Julian Adem of Mexico to talk about their nations’ relations with the United States. Wisconsin’s biggest trade partners by far are Canada and Mexico.

The discussion turned to workforce development when it was noted that both nations are doing their best to attract foreign-born talent.

“Even though we do have a highly educated and skilled workforce in Canada, we do need to look abroad,” Annable said.

In fact, Canada modernized its immigration laws a few years back to attract foreign talent. It plans to give residency to 1.2 million immigrants by 2023. That’s no small number in a nation with about 33 million people.

Some firms in Canada are even mining for talent in countries such as the United States, where foreign-born students are encouraged to apply for Canadian visas.

Mexico’s Adem described efforts since 2013 to improve English skills among Mexican university students through scholarships.

“If they can go back to Mexico and work when they finish their degrees in a tech-based field, (and) can go back to Mexico and work in transnational companies, possibly based out of Canada and the United States,” Adem said.

Compare that with the status quo in the United States, where the number of H-1B specialty employment visas has been capped at 65,000 (after peaking at 200,000 per year) for more than 20 years. These are work visas that could be issued to foreign students who train in the United States and who often wish to stay, but don’t win the lottery that allows them to do so. In fact, for every H-1B visa that is issued, three are denied.

Meanwhile, other parts of the world that are experiencing aging populations and workforce shortages are moving ahead to attract the right talent from elsewhere.

Germany is looking to attract up to 400,000 immigrants per year in jobs ranging from tech to academia to vocational trades, according to a recent New York Times report. It has changed its immigration laws to offer accelerated work visas.

Israel recently completed a deal to bring health-care workers from Nepal. Australia plans to double the number of immigrants it allows “down under” over the next year. Finland, Belgium, Greece, New Zealand, Japan and Portugal are among other nations that have changed regulations of late.

It’s all a part of trying to solve longstanding demographic problems in much of the western world, or the more recent dislocation caused by COVID-19, which has created “digital nomads” who can work abroad if needed.

It’s not a problem confined to the tech industry. Manufacturers, retailers, service businesses and farms are also encountering labor shortages, yet interests on both ends of the political spectrum have made it hard to update U.S. laws.

Whether it’s on the farm, on construction sites or in high-tech firms, the need for workers is intense. People on the front lines in those sectors say a reformed immigration policy would help – if only political forces vested in the broken nature of the status quo would stop blocking potential compromises.

Other nations are figuring out how to compete for talent. The United States can’t afford to come in last.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at