With the push for a broad immigration bill now dead in Congress, business advocates are ramping up their calls for Republicans who run both chambers to at least consider updating the nation’s guest-worker programs to help boost the economy.
From overhauling the visa that allows in farmworkers to boosting the number of high-tech visas awarded each year, businesses are insisting the gridlock that has stalled the legalization debate for current illegal immigrants not derail their own needs, which they say are rising along with the economy.
“Tens of thousands of people will be turned away simply because we don’t have enough visas to meet the needs of our economy,” said John Feinblatt, the chairman of the Partnership for a New American Economy, on a press-conference call last week as he begged for Congress to enhance the H-1B visa program, which allows foreigners with high-tech skills to take jobs in the U.S.
Meanwhile, more than five dozen members of Congress wrote a letter last week saying that any move to stiffen enforcement should also revamp the existing agricultural guest-worker program, known as the H-2A visa, which the lawmakers said isn’t working.
The bipartisan group of House members was sending a signal that even getting an enforcement-only bill, which has been the GOP leadership’s early approach, will run into trouble with Republicans who represent agriculture-heavy districts that rely on illegal immigrant labor to man the farms. Farmers say that if they’re going to have to find legal workers, the government must make sure there’s a supply of legal foreign workers available, through the H-2A program.
“It is imperative that any effort to implement mandatory E-Verify be coupled with a solution to agriculture’s unique labor needs,” the lawmakers, led by Rep. Dan Newhouse, Washington Republican, said in a letter to House leaders. “Failure to couple these reforms together would create an unworkable situation for American agriculture.”
But that coupling is exactly what Republican leaders had been trying to avoid, hoping instead to take the immigration issue step by step, beginning with enforcement. Republicans were already divided over what kinds of enforcement to pass, with the leading border security bill deemed too weak for many in the GOP.
President Obama’s executive action in November granting a temporary deportation amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants has also complicated matters, with some Republicans insisting Congress’ first step must be to find a way to reverse the amnesty. But several major attempts have fallen victim to a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, and Republican leaders have been unwilling to use Congress’ power of the purse to engage in a major showdown on the matter with Mr. Obama.
With immigration stuck in gridlock Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, said Congress should consider a small pilot program to test guest-worker changes. She said one option would be to allow more workers in places where unemployment has already dropped below 5 percent, which is a signal of a strong job market that could use more employees.
“The idea is a small program, and the key to it is then you study it and find out, did it reduce wages, did it reduce unauthorized immigration in those areas,” she said.
Ms. Jacoby said the demand for workers is picking up along with the economy, and all sides will see evidence of that this week, when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is expected to announce the country has already exceeded its annual cap on H-1B visa applications, after just a week.
The window opens April 1 every year, and Congress has allotted a total of 85,000 visas, with 20,000 of those going specifically to foreigners who obtained master’s degrees at U.S. universities.
During the economic slump, demand was low. It took most of the year to meet the cap in fiscal year 2011 and 2012. But all the visas were scooped up in just five business days the past two years, and analysts expect that to be the case this year as well.
But Jim Jefferies, president of IEEE-USA, which advocates for tech workers, said the visa numbers aren’t a good measure of demand, arguing that many companies submit many more applications than they need in an effort to boost their chances of winning.
He also said the companies that tend to scoop up the visas are ones that outsource their work to foreigners already — which he said is a bad deal for the U.S. economy.
“H-1B visas are simply not that valuable,” Mr. Jefferies said. “If they were, the federal government would not give them away at random in a way that clearly favors outsourcing companies.”