Workplace Culture

Companies Start Singing Immigration Reform Blues

By Max Mihelich

Oct. 31, 2014

While the hopes for immigration reform in 2014 have been dashed by a stalwart U.S. House of Representatives, the frustrations of the business community remain.

The lack of political progress on the issue comes in the face of significant pushes by the business community at-large for Congress to pass an immigration reform bill as soon as possible. 

“Immigration reform would help revitalize our economy by raising the GDP, boosting productivity, and attracting investment from around the world. It would spur innovation and entrepreneurship,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue wrote in an email. “It would create jobs for immigrant and native-born workers alike. Reform would also help address our demographic realities and slash the federal deficit.”

Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, an agriculture trade association based in Irvine, California, helped negotiate the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in June 2013 but failed to pass the House. Like many in the agriculture business, Nassif is frustrated with federal government’s inability to enact any sweeping reform measures.

Last June, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced the House would not be voting on immigration reform in 2014. President Barack Obama responded by saying he’d be bypassing Congress and “going it alone” to make changes to immigration policy. But in early September, the president announced he would not pursue any individual action on the issue.

Leaders across economic sectors have called for immigration reform to help remedy chronic labor shortages. Tech companies continue to struggle with filling positions because of the dearth of Americans with an educational background rooted in science, technology, engineering and math. According to an Adecco survey, there is one unemployed person for every 1.9 vacant STEM jobs in the United States. That disparity is projected to increase, as STEM jobs are expected to grow 17 percent by 2018, compared with a 9.8 percent growth rate for non-STEM jobs.

The reform bill that passed the Senate last year would’ve provided more opportunities for individuals with an educational background in a STEM field to work in the United States by raising the base cap of H-1B work visas from 65,000 to 110,000, with the potential for it to go as high as 180,000.

An increase in H-1B visas would only be one part of the labor-shortage solution, though, said Jorge Lopez, co-chair of the global mobility and immigration practice at law firm Littler Mendelson in Miami. Companies looking to develop long-term projects involving highly skilled foreign workers can see their plans delayed by a workers’ conversion to green card status, a process that can take up to 10 years depending on the nationality of the applicant.

“It’s not just about H-1B visas. It’s really about retention,” Lopez said. “If an employee ends up being a keeper and a company wants to keep them long term, then they need to be converted to green card status. That process is convoluted and ineffective. It creates problems because companies can’t move on with projects if their employees have visa restrictions.” 

Like the technology industry, agriculture’s leaders have been strong supporters of immigration reform, calling for a system overhaul that could help fill labor shortages.

“We asked for ways to legalize people who are here on false documents — workers who are loyal and experienced,” Nassif said. “We also sought a ‘future flow’ program. As we move from existing workers in the U.S. to a guest worker program, we wanted to make sure there were adequate pieces to provide for the job openings and that the process for getting people in the country as a nonimmigrant status worker was expeditious.”

While 2014 is not the year for immigration reform, advocates and supporters are waiting to see if anything changes after the midterm elections in November. The Republican Party is expected to retain the majority in the House and take the majority in the Senate, in effect making Obama a lame-duck president for his last two years in the White House. In which case, the business community should have an even harder task of lobbying for the kind of major reform it seeks.

“The business community and its partners will continue to make the case for meaningful reform. We’re going to use every tool and resource at our disposal,” Donohue wrote. “And we’re going to keep pushing our leaders to do the right thing for our country, if not before the election, then after — perhaps during a lame-duck session.”

Max Mihelich is a writer in the Chicago area.

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