The Latest Immigration Debate Takes All Faces into Account


There are many faces of immigration, and finally we’re close to a solution that takes them all into account. We in the startup community have been steadfastly focused on making sure that the discussion on high-skilled immigration – with provisions for a Startup Visa and no caps on H-1B visas – gets enough airtime. But there is a flipside. And when a critical mass of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle can agree not only on high-skilled immigration, but also on paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and policies on family visas, then truly comprehensive reform has a real shot.

Ahead of the full plan we expect to see in early April, this week the so-called “gang of eight” came together to discuss the waiting period for undocumented immigrants to become American citizens. The new plan reduces the time it would take to become naturalized, from five to three years (a concession to Democrats), but it would also extend the time that undocumented immigrants must wait for permission to work permanently, from eight to ten (an appeal to the Republicans.) This thirteen year path to citizenship matches the White House draft plan; bipartisan agreement on what’s been the most contentious issue over the years is a real achievement.

The worry that remains, however, is that a three year naturalization time creates a system where becoming a citizen is faster for undocumented immigrants than for individuals who came here legally. Moreover, the group remains at odds over a number of other major issues including the guest-worker program for low-skilled immigrants, employer verification, family visas, and who has authority on border security.

Meanwhile, the high-skilled immigration debate is being shaken up in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Committee member Sen. Chuck Grassley introduced a bill that explores the abuses of the H-1B system and tightens restrictions on the temporary worker visa program (H-1B). While the bill does not address the visa cap, it does set out more rigorous checks and balances, such as a higher wage threshold and requirements that companies try to hire Americans first.

While it seems that system abuses are fairly rampant, will Senator Grassley’s bill make things better for prospective employees and startups? For example, the requirement to list available positions on a Department of Labor sponsored website for a period of 30 days prior to petitioning for foreign labor seems onerous and unnecessarily time-consuming for startups that are all about high-speed growth.

Second, a key point in this debate is the concept of “indentured” visa holders – foreign workers who are paid less than their American counterparts because they are starting from a weaker bargaining position, having been reliant on their employers for sponsorship. The data bears out this reality. But, while ensuring that visa holders are paid the same as Americans is absolutely necessary, who is the authority on the “prevailing wage” for any industry or specific job? And what’s to say that authority won’t fudge the numbers to retain the current status quo?

Still, despite the problems with the system that certainly need to be investigated and addressed, neither party is happy with the status quo for high-skilled immigration, and leaders from both parties are promising change. The hurdle will be getting an agreement through Senator Grassley and the Judiciary Committee – and accepting that change is likely to come with requirements such as higher wages, higher application fees and more central control over the process. 

Introducing another angle, the committee also heard arguments suggesting that the H-1B program discriminates against women.

While the debate is far from over, what’s clear is that bipartisan agreement is central to the success of comprehensive reform. And if that’s what we’re rallying for, then we need to understand what’s happening to all the faces of immigration.

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Photo courtesy of Anuska Sampedro.