Effects of immigration legislation considered

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

Proposed immigration reforms could pose significant effects on local business, including a measure requiring the use of an electronic employment verification system within five years.

 Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, said that overall she’s optimistic about federal immigration legislation, noting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was involved in drafting the measure. But Schwenke added: “The devil is always in the details.”

An immigration bill introduced in the U.S. Senate — titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 — includes provisions intended to seal gaps in the U.S. border with Mexico, provide a path to legal status for the roughly 11 million illegal aliens already in the country and streamline immigration processes.

A group of senators called the Gang of Eight that includes Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, crafted the legislation.

The bill would direct $3 billion toward  the design and implementation of a comprehensive southern border security strategy and another $1.5 billion toward a border fence.

The bill would provide a route to legalization through the creation of a Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status that would be granted if certain conditions, including proof of gainful employment and no criminal record, are met and a fine and registration fees are paid.

In addition, the bill calls for reforms to certain family related categories, implementation of the DREAM Act, a new merit-based visa and a clearing of the employment and family backlogs.

Several of the provisions in the proposed bill pose specific concerns to business — among them the requirement that all employers be covered by an electronic employment verification system widely known as E-Verify within five years.

Employers with more than 5,000 employees would have to comply with E-Verify requirements within two years after regulations establishing the system are published. Employers with more than 500 employees would have to be covered within three years. Ultimately, all businesses, including those in the agricultural industry would have to be covered.

Immigration reform legislation also would expand protections for workers to ensure those who are legally allowed to work are not denied the right due to error or employer misconduct. Among other measures, the legislation would require back pay for immigrant workers who’ve been unfairly dismissed and allows illegal aliens to remain and work in the U.S. if they’ve filed a legitimate claim against an employers alleging workplace violation or if an illegal alien “has been helpful or is likely to be helpful” in an investigation against an employer suspected of criminal violations.

The legislation would create new employment-based visas and reform existing visas. The cap for the H-1B visas granted to highly skilled workers would increase from 65,000 to 110,000 annually, with an option to increase that to 180,000 based on demand. At the same time, though, the legislation would shift more responsibility to employers relying on H-1B workers to first ensure no U.S. citizens are available for the jobs by increasing recruiting and job notification requirements and barring companies from the H-1B program whose work forces after three years are more than 50 percent H-1B foreign workers. The legislation further seeks to protect U.S. workers by raising wage requirements for foreign workers.

Kristin Lynch, press secretary for Sen. Bennet, said changes to the H-1B visa “will provide smarter flexibility to high-tech companies while providing protections for American workers.

Federal immigration legislation would creates a new W visa program for lower-skilled workers, such as those in the service industry, retail and general labor. An employer wishing to participate in the the W visa program would have to register with the federal government.

The initial cap for registered W visa positions would be 20,000, rising to 75,000 in four years. An option exists for raising the cap to 200,000 based on the determination of need by a newly created Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research. The program would offer portability. A foreign worker who entered the U.S. under the W visa program could switch jobs to another registered employer.

In the agricultural industry, undocumented farm laborers would be eligible for a new status known as a blue card and from there could be eligible for RPI status. For new agricultural workers, a guest worker visa for contract workers, called a W-2, would be established to replace the current H-2A program. A new portable, at-will worker visa, W-3, also would be established. These programs would be administered by the Agriculture Department.

“The current H-2B is unworkable,” Lynch said, adding that transferring responsibility from the Department of Labor makes sense “since the USDA understands the needs of agriculture better.”

Another new visa program would be established for foreign entrepreneurs who wish to start businesses in the U.S. The visa would be renewed based on requirements for revenue and job production. “We should be encouraging foreign entrepreneurs” Lynch said. “Assuming they meet the benchmarks, we want to be attracting that kind of investment.”

Lynch said federal immigration legislation was devised in part following discussions held around Colorado as part of an effort led by Sen. Bennet. Lynch said many business interests were consulted in the process, including peach growers, the Farm Bureau and Club 20, which arranged for a representative from Sen. Bennet’s office to explain the proposal to Grand Junction business and agricultural interests.

Schwenke said business owners and managers likely will closely monitor provisions related to electronic employment verification. “Businesses of all types and sizes needing to be using E-Verify is great as long as the system is accurate, which it has not been in the past, and it doesn’t add to businesses costs,” she said. “Businesses should not be in the job of policing that issue.

Sen. Bennet’s office said immigration legislation hasn’t yet been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, so estimates of its costs haven’t been determined.

As for the potential effects of other provisions on local businesses, Schwenke said most local visa issues involve agriculture and that on first glance many of those reforms look promising.

The Grand Valley has not seen a lot of interest in the H-1B high-tech worker visa program, and local economic conditions have markedly reduced the need for foreign workers in construction, she said.

Schwenke said additional border security could help local businesses. “In terms of the business community’s role in looking at comprehensive immigration reform, with E-Verify we will now be on the front line of this issue,” she said. “So the concept of securing the borders first and putting a border security measure in front of the other items is welcome news.”