The new immigration bill President Donald Trump touts as a way to “restore our competitive edge in the 21st century” calls for cutting immigration levels in half over a decade and creating a points-based system that favors highly educated and skilled immigrants with English ability over those with family in the United States. The bill may never become law or undergo significant changes, but its current form is drawing criticism from some in the employer community.
Although the bill, dubbed the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, seeks to reward immigrants who have in-demand job skills, it’s “not a pro-employment bill,” according to an attorney who works with employers in need of foreign workers.
“It would be a radical shift in immigration policy that does not address the reality that I hear from employers every day,” Lori Chesser, a contributor to Iowa Employment Law Letter and chair of the immigration department at the Davis Brown Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa, said after the bill was announced on August 2.
Elaine C. Young, an editor of Utah Employment Law Letter and attorney with Kirton McConkie in Salt Lake City, Utah, also criticized the bill, saying it would “effectively subject all employees to a quota system, whereas now there is no cap on certain classifications, like intracompany transferee managers and executives, performers, university professors, or religious workers.” In addition to creating uncertainty surrounding when an employee could transfer to the United States, the bill could be “a major problem for employers [that] rely on seasonal, low-skilled workers,” she said.
Pie or quilt?
One problem with the bill is that it “assumes the economy is a zero-sum game,” Chesser said. That thinking imagines the economy as a pie baked in a pan of a certain size that can’t change, she said, and advocates of that way of thinking see foreign workers displacing U.S. workers because “we can’t possibly increase the size of the pie pan.”
“Actually, history shows the economy is more like a quilt,” Chesser said. “You sew on more pieces and it covers more people. In other words, economies grow.” She also said economies can shrink, and that’s what she sees happening if the RAISE Act is enacted.
Among the bill’s flaws, Chesser said, is that it doesn’t address specific employer needs for temporary or permanent workers and doesn’t recognize that many critical low-wage jobs are almost impossible to fill. The bill also doesn’t look to the future, she said, because it calls for the number of green cards awarded to be decreased over time and includes no adjustments for events happening in the economy, such as the wave of retirements expected as the Baby Boomers leave the workforce.
“Also, the proposal ultimately hurts the people it is trying to help,” Chesser said. “People who are unemployed need jobs, which are created when the economy grows.”
In the current immigration system, employers can bring in foreign workers by proving to the government that they can’t find a qualified U.S. worker. Under the system envisioned in the new bill, the government would be moving from a market-based system that encourages innovation to a controlled-economy system that would allow “the government to determine who should enter based on what it thinks would be good for us,” thereby making innovation likely to go elsewhere, Chesser said.
Young agreed that the bill in its current form should have employers “very concerned,” in part because it “would intrude on U.S. businesses’ decisions on the type of talent they need.” She said it is already challenging for employers to bring in workers who meet the requirements of the current immigration law. But according to Young, “The Act goes much further, valuing younger workers over older [employees] and assigning value to certain skills even though they may not be in demand.”
Young cited the example of an international company that expanded into the United States recently. It sells and installs a unique technology for use in hazardous environments, and in order to make its U.S. launch successful, it needed to bring in one or two workers who have highly specialized technical skills but no university degree.
“Based on this points system, the company would not be able to expand and hire more U.S. workers because it cannot bring a foreign worker in to train the new U.S. workers on the technology,” Young said.
Reduction in family-based programs
The new bill, sponsored by Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, calls for reducing family-based immigration programs. Chesser said that aspect of the bill mistakenly assumes that potential immigrants related to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are sponsored to come here are low-skill.
“Employers benefit every day from people who were sponsored by relatives,” Chesser said. “The employment-based system is significantly smaller than the family-based system at this time,” and employers have been asking for more green cards to meet their needs. “I don’t see how decreasing the number of visas will assist employers in any way,” she said.
Chesser also said the bill abandons the idea of the American Dream that “a person can pull himself up by his boot straps and achieve despite the accident of his birth.” She said the bill “would discard that idea, and with it, the energy, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit that has helped make American the destination country.”
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