4 Things for Benefits Pros Regarding Obama’s Immigration Plan

By Kelley Butler

Dec. 11, 2014

Through an executive order announced Nov. 20, President Barack Obama took steps to expand resident and employment eligibility for up to 5 million workers living in the United States without legal permission.

In a televised address to the nation, the president said his order shields people living in the United States without legal permission from deportation and allows them to live and work temporarily here, so long as they have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, register with appropriate federal agencies, pass a background check and pay taxes.

Although the action falls short of the wider and more permanent protections immigrant advocacy groups and business leaders would like, most experts agree that the order could make living and working in the U.S. easier for workers residing in the United States without legal permission and their potential employers.

After a broad scan of news and analysis on how the president’s order affects employers, here are the top four things HR and benefits professionals need to know:

1. Prepare for a potential influx of resumes. The visa proposals for highly skilled workers included in the president’s order would add about 147,000 people to the workforce by 2024, according to the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. In addition to immigrants themselves, the administration is seeking to allow the spouses of workers with H-1B visas to legally work as well. Also, tech companies in particular stand to benefit; one of the proposals would extend beyond 29 months the time that someone with an American science or technology degree could work at a company after graduation.

2. Payroll tax withholding and entitlement administration may be more complicated. Under the president’s order, people living in the United States without legal permission  may apply for permits to work legally in the U.S., which means they would be subject to payroll tax withholding for Social Security and Medicare.

This could become sticky for employers as people living in the United States without legal permission come out of the shadows. Virginia-based attorney Christine Mehfoud told website HR Hero that “employers may have an increased number of employees presenting with new identities and wanting to change their name, Social Security number, etc., on file with the employer. This has become a tricky situation for many employers, especially those who have a policy of disciplining employees who provide false information to the employer.”

In addition, employers also would need to appropriately communicate with and oversee employees who become eligible to receive Social Security and/or Medicare benefits if they reach retirement age while still in the country.

3. Health care becomes thornier as well. Obama was explicit that the order does not allow people living in the United States without legal permission to be eligible to buy or receive subsidies from health insurance exchanges. That means employers who hire them would be exempt from the $3,000 per employee penalty for not providing them health benefits. This move especially angers anti-immigration groups, claiming it gives employers a $3,000 “incentive” to hire a person living in the country without legal permission worker over a native-born American.

4. Be patient, but stay vigilant. Most experts concur that even if it’s unchallenged, the president’s order won’t be fully implemented until the first quarter of 2015 at the earliest. It could take a year or more, some say. Further, employment attorney Charles Gillman told Expert HR, “the devil is in the details,” and noted “there is still a lot of uncertainty as to when these changes will come to fruition.” In general, though, Gillman said, “It should make it easier to employ foreign nationals and streamline the process. The takeaway is that most observers believe the administration has put itself on a path that should help employers.”

Kelley M. Butler is the editorial director at Benz Communications, an HR/benefits communication strategy firm. Before joining Benz, Butler spent 11 years at Employee Benefit News, including seven as editor in chief. To comment, email

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