US to ease visa access in bid to attract foreign investment

Hundreds of thousands of workers and employers could benefit, says President Obama “This is a market with huge opportunities for Spanish companies,” says business chief

National Harbor -
Treasury Secretary Jacob L. Lew at the conference on Tuesday.
Treasury Secretary Jacob L. Lew at the conference on Tuesday.YURI GRIPAS (REUTERS)

As its economy begins to pick up, the United States is turning its attention to foreign investment. The federal government this week organized a conference with 1,300 participating companies from 70 countries and 500 high-level government officials in a bid to attract business projects to the world’s most powerful nation.

The goal of the gathering is to get investors sold on the benefits of doing business in the US. On Monday, President Barack Obama gave the keynote address at the SelectUSA Investment Summit, held in a hotel in National Harbor (Maryland), in the Washington DC metropolitan area

On Tuesday, several members of his administration repeated the message: ‟The United States is the best place in the world to do business,” proclaimed Treasury Secretary Jacob L. Lew, citing the country’s education system, large market, entrepreneurial spirit and low energy costs.

Washington is also seeking to break down persisting reticence on issues such as migratory policy

The US is the largest recipient of foreign investment in the world. Last year, this amount totaled $92 billion, according to preliminary official data.

The SelectUSA initiative began in 2011, and since then it has helped attract more than $20 billion in investment and created thousands of jobs in the US, according to the White House.

But Washington is also seeking to break down persisting reticence on issues such as migratory policy. In his address, Obama announced reforms to streamline and simplify the visa system that allows companies to transfer skilled workers from their foreign operations to their US bases for up to three years. Hundreds of thousands of workers and their employers could benefit, said the president.

The Department of Homeland Security, the president explained, is going to “clarify” new guidelines for obtaining an L-1B visa, which ‟permits multinational companies to transfer employees who possess specialized knowledge from their foreign operations to their operations in the United States.”

Last year, 35 percent of applications were rejected, according to official figures cited by the National Foundation for American Policy.

The new guidelines will first undergo a 45-day period of public scrutiny, then may be subjected to changes. They are set to go into effect on August 31 and will not require congressional approval. New regulations are less stringent when it comes to defining a worker with specialized skills, according to the department’s memorandum, which was released on Tuesday.

Loosening up the visa system is critically important” US ambassador to Spain James Costos

“Loosening up [that visa system] and allowing these people to move easily when they are qualified business people is critically important,” said James Costos, the US ambassador to Spain, in an interview on the sidelines of SelectUSA.

The US embassy has coordinated the presence of a delegation of 26 Spanish companies (including Inditex, BBVA, Iberdrola and Repsol) as well as a dozen Spanish institutions at the summit. That represents four more companies than in the 2013 edition of SelectUSA.

Ambassador Costos talked about a win-win situation for Spain and the US, as Spanish firms with a presence at the gathering get a chance to expand and seek ‟opportunities they cannot find in Spain.”

Costos encouraged Spaniards to take advantage of ‟the many” job opportunities waiting for them in the US, and to take those skills back to Spain. He also said he wants to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit in Spain in a bid to bring down the high unemployment rate and reduce the need for young skilled workers to emigrate.

Another one of his priorities, Costos announced, was to foment greater contact between entrepreneurs and investors from both countries to ‟make people aware of what’s there. If they don’t know, they can’t invest.”

Overall, the ambassador said that ‟this is a very positive moment” for economic relations between the US and Spain.

In 2014, the US was the first non-EU destination for Spanish exports, with a year-on-year increase of 22.6 percent according to the Economy Ministry. The trade balance was positive and grew 121.6 percent.

This is a market that offers enormous opportunities for Spanish companies”

In 2013, the last year for which the US government has available figures, Spain was the ninth-largest foreign investor in the US, with a year-on-year rise of 2.7 percent. Meanwhile, the US was the biggest foreign investor in Spain in 2014, doubling its 2013 figure, according to the Economy Ministry.

‟This is a market that offers enormous opportunities for Spanish companies,” says Álvaro Schweinfurth, director of the foreign policy department of the Spanish employers’ association CEOE. Still, he sees room for improvement, such as a way to get degrees from other education systems official recognized, or making it easier for Europeans to work in the US on a temporary basis.

Migratory hurdles are a recurring complaint by large multinationals, especially in Silicon Valley. The number of H-1B visas for entrepreneurs and highly skilled workers is limited to 65,000 a year, although authorities receive twice as many applications, according to The Los Angeles Times.

In his immigration decree announced in November, Obama included a few modest changes for technology workers. But for more far-reaching changes, the president needs congressional approval, which seems unlikely given that the Republican Party, which opposes the reform, is in control of both houses.

The president said as much at the summit: ‟One thing that would make America even more attractive to businesses [...] would be an integral immigration reform.”

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