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Reform Barriers: Inaction on immigration reform is harming businesses

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Political pundits begin each year by talking about the bright prospects for comprehensive immigration reform, and every year, something harpoons the chances for even incremental reform. A comprehensive reform bill has passed the United States Senate, but it’s stalled in the House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner has slammed on the brakes.

Unless Boehner is intentionally downplaying prospects for reform, hoping to get past the primary season with the contentious issue on the back burner, this could be another year in which those hopes are dashed. Meanwhile, employers seeking the necessary skill sets to grow their companies wait and wait and wait. So do foreign students who graduate from American universities eager to get started, and unauthorized workers living in the shadows of American society, hoping for a path to citizenship. 

Immigration attorney Grant Sovern, a partner with Quarles & Brady, said inaction is particularly harmful in a university community because of the lost opportunities for economic growth. “Immigration reform is such an opportunity for employers in a place like Madison,” he stated. “There are a lot of things we are losing because Congress has not taken action.”

In this look at immigration law, IB presents the various ways reform inertia impacts employers and individual immigrants.

Visa volume

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a temporary home to more than 4,500 international students from over 100 countries, many of them enrolled in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. Instead of offering their skills to local employers upon graduation, many end up leaving the country because the existing legal framework does not create a path for them.

The culprit is the annual cap on H-1B work visas. While universities are not limited in the number of foreign students they can enroll with non-immigrant student visas, American companies are limited in the number of foreign graduates they can hire. That cap is set at 85,000 workers (including 20,000 with master’s or higher degrees), and it accommodates just 65% of the 130,000 H-1B petitions filed on an annual basis.

Under the bill that passed the Senate, the H-1B cap would increase to between 110,000 and 180,000, depending on economic need. To increase flexibility, the bill would establish committees that track economic activity and set the number of available visas based on perceived need. 

One reason the H-1B cap has survived is that elected officials traditionally believed foreign students were taking American jobs, but Sovern and fellow immigration attorney Glorily Lopez (Murphy Desmond) doubt employers would go through the time and the expense of paying filing fees, which approach $3,000, and legal fees, which can exceed that, if they could find enough American workers with the right skill sets. To secure an H-1B visa, employers also have to pay the prevailing wage for that position in their geographic area.


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