By Corey Preston
As Congress continues to debate immigration reform, much of the focus in the coming weeks will likely be on provisions regarding a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and increased security along the southern United States border.? While these issues are both important and contentious, business owners and employers should be aware that many employment-related reforms enjoy broad bipartisan support, and, at the moment, appear likely to be a part of any final reform package.
Whether your business is seeking a broader and more diverse talent pool, or you currently employ talented immigrants and want to ensure their ability to remain in the country, comprehensive immigration reform will hopefully be designed to create a stronger, more free-flowing international workforce, and businesses who actively engage in this emerging global labor market stand to benefit.
A bigger, more talented and more diverse labor pool.? One of the primary aims of immigration reform from an economic perspective is creating a system that is responsive to the actual needs of the U.S. labor market.? If an industry is already saturated with qualified employees, the ideal immigration system will limit the number of immigrants who will be admitted to work in that industry, while on the other hand; industries where employers simply can?t find enough qualified workers will have increased access to visas for talented foreign workers.
The headline employment provision in the Senate bill is the expansion of the H-1B visa program, which provides non-permanent, employer-sponsored work visas for individuals working in specialized fields such as sciences, engineering, medicine, and business specialties. ?The 65,000 visas allowed presently are woefully inadequate?applications for fiscal year 2014 were closed after just five days this past April?and the reform bill will increase that quota to at least 110,000, and as many as 180,000, visas annually if certain conditions are met.? Many large businesses, as well as smaller employers, craft HR strategies around specifically-skilled foreign employees, and this expansion will create more certainty for those employers year-to-year, and allow them to plan effectively.
The Senate bill also includes a number of proposals that should make it easier for employers?especially those seeking employees with advanced degrees or highly-specialized skills?to better tap into the strongest international talent pools by eliminating country based quotas and thereby allowing a backlog of highly talented applicants from certain countries, particularly China and India, to clear.
All of that said, it is important to note that most categories of permanent employment visas, as well as H-1B visas, have built-in protections for U.S. workers.? If you would like to hire a foreign worker, and apply for an H-1B visa, you will be required to make certain attestations that the worker will be making the prevailing wage, and won?t be intentionally displacing U.S. workers.? The labor certification process for a permanent visa, meanwhile, is more arduous, and requires a certification that there are not enough available, qualified and willing U.S. workers to fill the position offered, and that the hiring of the foreign worker will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers.
Expanded options for keeping talented employees stateside. ?Under the Senate bill, students studying in the U.S. on a J-1 visa would no longer have to declare their intent to return to their country as soon as their education is complete, but rather would have the ability to concurrently seek permanent resident status while completing their education.? This provision could play a critical role in ensuring that employers, and the United States? economy broadly, hang on to talented, U.S.-educated students.
The Senate bill also increases flexibility for H-1B visa holders and other workers who enter under lower-skilled worker visas, making it easier for them to change jobs, and creates a ?point system? whereby workers, including lower-skilled workers, can proactively seek permanent legal status.? This proposal in the Senate bill would allow workers to seek permanent status based on their specific skill set, and the U.S. market?s need for those types of services.? These provisions would presumably create a more free-flowing labor marketplace, as well as create incentives for employees to proactively avoid any lapse in their lawful status.
While the benefit of these provisions to immigrants is obvious, they also represent a real opportunity for businesses, especially those who utilize labor?both lower-skill labor and high-skilled workers?which is not sufficiently available in the United States. ?A business that, for instance, anticipates needing highly technical and qualified foreign engineers might consider developing policies and strategies for actively working with employees to ensure long-term or permanent immigration status.? Not only will this help set a business apart from its competition for these specifically skilled workers, and lure the very best talent in the field, but it will potentially allow businesses to hold on to this talent long-term.
Before immigration reform is signed into law, take steps now to evaluate your staffing needs, in light of the opportunities that reform may reasonably present to your business.? Email Corey@theARgroup.com?with your immigration questions.