The immigration overhaul by Joe Biden seeks to allow more qualified foreign workers into the United States without stirring widespread protest from labor groups, whose opposition would ruin prospects for what is already one of the president’s most precarious priorities.
On his first day in office, the sweeping proposal Biden sent to Congress drew quick Republican opposition over its centerpiece: a faster path to citizenship for 11 million U.S. undocumented immigrants. By increasing the number of employment-based green cards, another provision would enable more international students and workers to enter the U.S.
Business groups see the proposal as a way to increase the supply of coders and other qualified tech employees for U.S. businesses without raising caps on programs such as the H-1B visa for high-skilled workers.
Companies such as Google, Apple Inc., and Facebook Inc. of Alphabet Inc. have been pressing for years to increase the number of tech workers allowed into the U.S., saying they need engineers from nations such as India are not enough qualified Americans. But efforts to expand the workforce through H-1B visas have drawn a backlash from unions and opponents of immigration, who argue that businesses ignore U.S. talent for hiring foreigners at lower wages.
By leaving the annual H-1B quota untouched, the Biden proposal seeks to sidestep a conflict with organized labor. By eliminating a decades-long backlog of people waiting for employment-based green cards, which grant permanent legal residence and are capped at 140,000 per year under current law, the measure instead clears a path for more foreign workers to enter the country eventually.
This bill, signed into law, would be a tremendous improvement in this country’s legal immigration,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group established by leaders of the tech industry.”
According to industry officials working on the matter, business group leaders have discussed an immigration overhaul with Democratic and Republican employees in the House and Senate. The talks focused on identifying bipartisan consensus areas that can help advance an overall package, including keeping graduates of science in the U.S., providing so-called Dreamers with legal status, bringing undocumented immigrants to the country as children, and streamlining the visa system based on employment.
So far, Biden’s approach is being supported by labor groups.
Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, praised the framework of Biden as “bold” and said its path to citizenship “will help raise standards for all workers.” The labor group declined to comment on the proposed changes to the visa system based on employment. In support of Biden’s immigration plan, the Service Employees International Union, which primarily represents lower-wage workers and the United Farm Workers, joined a multimillion-dollar advertising and public relations campaign.
Nandini Nair, an immigration attorney at Greenspoon Marder LLP, said that Biden’s approach goes “a long way” towards meeting the concerns of unions.
Nair said, “You deal with the people who are already here in the U.S. versus this narrative that foreign workers come to the U.S. and take jobs.”
Even so, unions’ views on the measure could change dramatically as lawmakers hash out details of the legislation.
Biden’s aims to recover unused visas from previous years and eliminate per-country green card employment caps that could benefit Indian IT professionals who sometimes wait decades to gain permanent U.S. residency. The plan would also exempt green card holders’ spouses and children from the annual quota, which some advocates estimate could double the number of cards based on employment.
“There are real tensions there,” said Ediberto Roman, a law professor who focuses on immigration at Florida International University. “I could see some potential impact there in terms of qualified labor.”
There is debate as to whether tech companies in the United States need to import employees. According to the Manpower Group, engineers and IT staff are among the most challenging positions to fill, and companies say that they are forced to look for foreign workers as a result. But opponents of immigration say the U.S. labor pool is adequate, pointing to the number of Americans graduating in computer science or related fields.
The Biden administration is “spousing the United States’ tired talking points” Chamber of Commerce and others who benefit from a wellspring of cheap labor sources, said Kevin Lynn, the U.S. group’s executive director. Tech Workers, which supports lower U.S. immigration levels and opposes employment outsourcing.
Lynn said the devastating effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the U.S. labor market is even more reason to hold off on proposals to open the door to more foreign workers.
“I am confused about why, at a time of so much job insecurity, they would push expansionist immigration policies,” Lynn said.
“Due to a long-standing partisan divide over granting undocumented migrants access to citizenship, Biden’s immigration proposal stands little chance of passage in its current form — a policy derided by many Republicans as “amnesty. But as they write a comprehensive immigration bill, the president’s plan will likely be an outline for Democrats in Congress.
Press Secretary of the White House Jen Psaki said Wednesday she would not comment on the measure’s prospects because it was not formally introduced in Congress.
If it hopes to pass the overhaul into law and fulfill one of Biden’s core campaign promises, the White House will have to pull off a balancing act to unite forces on the left—labor groups and immigrant-rights advocates. Biden’s plan has already been denounced by key Republican senators, meaning that Biden will need strong Democratic support.
And the path to citizenship, not increasing the number of foreign workers, remains the dominant issue for advocates of immigrant rights, said Lorella Praeli, co-chair of Community Change, one of the organizations leading the campaign to promote the Biden plan.
“We must continue to build momentum to win freedom for all 11 million people and to reform and transform our entire system,” said Praeli.
Biden’s proposal seeks to keep students from abroad who earn advanced degrees in science and technology in the U.S. by giving them a faster path to permanent residence. Making work authorization permanent for their dependents and preventing their children from aging out of the system would help guest workers who already hold H-1B visas.
The plan by Biden also acknowledges labor groups’ concerns. It gives the Department of Homeland Security the power, based on economic conditions, to increase or decrease the number of green cards available and enact rules to promote “higher wages for non-immigrant, high-skilled visas to prevent unfair competition with American workers.”
Companies employing foreign workers are anxious to see changes to the legal immigration system, particularly after the early slate of executive actions by Biden stopped short of immediately repealing the pandemic-related visa curbs of former President Donald Trump. To eventually roll them back, Biden’s orders directed a review of many Trump migration policies.
Groups of businesses, including the U.S. The Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and FWD.us have tried to build support for a comprehensive revision of immigration, including a path to citizenship, particularly for Dreamers.
Allowing more qualified foreign workers into the U.S. once enjoyed strong support from the Republican Party, but following Trump’s presidency, it may be a less powerful attraction for GOP legislators. He sought to limit both legal and illegal migration to the nation, harden the party’s position, and routinely demonized immigrants as threats to both U.S. security and American employment.
In 2013, Senator Marco Rubio, who co-sponsored a bipartisan immigration overhaul that included a citizenship path for undocumented migrants, denounced Biden’s bill as a “non-starter” that will give people living in the country without permission “blanket amnesty.”