Policy Puzzle: Employers Seek Solutions to Immigration Impasse

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Homeward Bound Strack is not alone in seeking foreign professionals for highly skilled positions. For the two years prior to 2009, the annual allotment of H-1B visas, restricted to applicants with at least a bachelor's degree, was exhausted within a few days of April 1, the first date on which they were available. When the number of applicants exceeds the quota of 85,000 H-1B visas, including 20,000 designated for foreign students who have completed advanced degrees at a U.S. university, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) holds a lottery. In 2008, companies applied for 163,000 H-1B visas. People whose educational or work visas were expiring who weren't picked in the lottery had to leave the country.

"The stars of our universities in science, engineering and math are foreign students," says Judy Lee, a partner at Foster Quan. "We have an incredible talent pool, and employers need them." This is particularly true in fast-growing niche fields such as nanotechnology, biomedical engineering and green energy, she adds.

This year, because of the economic downturn, H-1B visas were still available in June for the first time since the current cap was set in 2004. As of May 29, USCIS reported that employers had filed petitions for approximately 45,800 H-1B petitions, plus 20,000 for students with U.S.-earned advanced degrees.

Worksite Worries

For employers, the April 30 announcement was ominous: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it was shifting the focus of its worksite enforcement strategy away from undocumented workers and toward the employers who hire them.

"Effective immediately, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will focus its resources in the worksite enforcement program on the criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hire illegal workers in order to target the root cause of illegal immigration," DHS said in a press release.

Audit Acceleration

But the real impact of the enforcement policy change remains to be seen. In its press release, DHS indicated it would focus on employers that commit serious crimes, rather than those with paperwork violations: "ICE will look for evidence of the mistreatment of workers, along with evidence of trafficking, smuggling, harboring, visa fraud, identification document fraud, money laundering and other such criminal conduct."

Congressional Conundrum

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to reform the nation's immigration laws--but he had a few more pressing issues to deal with first. At press time, there were media reports that he would convene Congressional leaders in June to begin the discussion of comprehensive immigration reform. But few expect a vote on the plan until 2010 or 2011.

Hot-Button Issue

Whether more temporary or "guest" workers should be allowed into the country will be the hot-button issue in the upcoming immigration debate, according to Randel Johnson, vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Senior Editor

Mary Swanton

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