Business Voices Concerns About White House-Senate GOP Talks

By Staff Report

Mar. 29, 2007

A potential immigration reform proposal emanating from discussions between the Bush administration and Senate Republicans is causing consternation among corporate interests because it does not provide a path to permanent residence for temporary or undocumented workers.

At the same time, a group of high-tech businesses is warning that the visa cap for highly skilled immigrants will be reached sometime in April—in a record time of just weeks, or perhaps even days, after the government begins accepting applications from companies on March 31.

Raising the limits on H-1B visas is part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced in the House on March 22 by Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, and Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, that would also strengthen border security, increase work-site enforcement, allow 400,000 to 600,000 low-skill workers into the country annually and establish a path to legalization for illegal immigrants.

A similar comprehensive measure has not yet emerged in the Senate, where the Bush administration has been working with GOP members to fashion a legislative framework.

Those talks, however, are resulting in a proposal that would delay the launch of a temporary worker program and increase the number of employment-based green cards only after certain triggers are met, according to a PowerPoint presentation of the plan released March 29 by the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration group.

The benchmarks include increasing border patrol forces to 18,300, building 370 miles of barrier between the U.S. and Mexico and ensuring that an employment verification system is in place that has the capacity to process temporary workers.

In addition, temporary workers would be admitted to the country under a program in which they work for two years and return home for six months. They can repeat that cycle two more times.

The country’s approximately 12 million undocumented workers can obtain so-called Z visas, which would be renewable every three years indefinitely. But they would have to pay a $2,000 fine and a $1,500 fee at each renewal. There would be no special provisions for a path to legal residency for temporary or undocumented workers. Each would have to apply through the normal green card process after current backlogs are cleared. Illegal immigrants would have to pay a $10,000 fine.

These proposals are drawing criticism in the business community. “Right now, it’s unworkable,” says Laura Reiff, a partner at the Greenberg Traurig law firm in Washington and co-chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition.

The putative White House-Senate proposal won’t help companies that need low-skill workers, according to Reiff. She argues that there must be a bridge to legal residency for immigrants so that employers have a stable workforce.

“This is what we need for economic security in the United States,” she says.

Another group of business advocates stressed on March 29 that the country must admit more high-skill immigrants to survive fierce global competition. That group is urging Congress to reform the H-1B visa program that allows temporary residency to immigrants with at least a bachelor’s degree or equivalent work experience.

The current cap of 65,000 for the next fiscal year, which begins on October 1, is likely to be met within weeks of the opening of the application process this weekend, according to members of Compete America, a business coalition. An additional 20,000 spots are available annually for foreigners who have advanced degrees.

If a company didn’t obtain H-1B visas this year, it would have to wait until October 2008 to employ foreign high-tech workers.

“This year [the process] has reached a level of dysfunction that can only be described as absurd,” says Robert Hoffman, vice president of government and public affairs for Oracle.

Advocates say that the demand for employees with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math exceeds the number available in the U.S. workforce. In addition, more than half of the advanced degrees awarded each year in those areas go to foreign students.

Those graduates can stay in the country only one year after they leave school if they don’t have an H-1B visa. Even if they do get an H-1B, they have just begun a long journey toward legal residence. The green card backlog stretches back to those who applied at the beginning of the decade.

Uncertainty about the length of time that high-tech talent can stay in the country undermines business planning, says Lowell Sachs, senior manager of federal government affairs for Sun Microsystems.

“We need predictability,” he says.

Companies also want to be able to integrate top performers. “When we hire this talent, we want them to make a career with our company,” says Amy Burke, director of government relations for Texas Instruments.

If a company can’t hire high-skilled foreign workers, it may send them—and, perhaps, entire operations—to its facilities abroad. Or companies from other countries may hire foreign students once they graduate from U.S. universities. Current immigration policies “are pushing people toward our competitors,” Hoffman says.

Advocates back the reforms contained in the Gutierrez-Flake bill. They include raising H-1B limits to 115,000 annually and increasing employment-based green cards from 140,000 to 290,000 annually. The bill also would substantially increase the number of spouses and children who can receive green cards. 

If comprehensive reform breaks down, members of Compete America say they have received assurances from Capitol Hill leaders that H-1B changes will move in separate legislation.

But the H-1B program also has detractors with political clout.

“Unfortunately under current law, employers, especially in the high-tech industry, are abusing these temporary visa programs by exploiting workers, driving down standards and often facilitating the displacement of domestic workers and the outsourcing of jobs,” AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said in a statement supporting a bill introduced on March 29 that targets visa fraud and abuse.

All sides will be making their voices heard over the next few months as Congress and the White House wrestle with immigration reform. But most people agree that, with an election year looming, time is of the essence.

“The clock is really ticking,” Reiff says.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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