The subject of immigration has once again been thrust into the limelight, as the Obama administration faces off against a divided congress over thousands of undocumented children entering the U.S. from Central America.
Meantime, an immigration reform bill remains in limbo within those hallowed halls, with no resolution in sight. President Obama has vowed to take unilateral control of the reform issue, making changes without congressional consent.
While all these headline-grabbing stories keep minds trained on the humanitarian aspects of immigration reform, it is easy to forget what the concept is truly all about: a desire by U.S. companies to fill domestic jobs with non-domestic workers.
Highly skilled foreign workers are in demand...
Every year, tens of thousands of H-1B visas are grabbed by U.S. companies looking to import highly skilled workers for jobs they say cannot by filled by the nation's workforce. Many of these jobs are in the technology industry, and Silicon Valley companies have been spending millions of dollars each year in an effort to raise the ceiling on H-1B visas from the current total of 85,000 per year.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's pro-immigration political action group, FWD.us, has signed on big names like Microsoft's Bill Gates and Netflix's Reed Hastings, to name a few. Despite amassing a kitty of $50 million very quickly, the group has had virtually no effect on immigration reform.
The biggest holder of H-1B visas, however, are often outsourcing companies like Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Cognizant – the three top visa-grabbers for 2013. These Indian-based companies supply workers for the U.S. tech sector and other employers, sometimes training employees here to replicate jobs in India. Critics allege that hiring workers in this way circumvents the prevailing wage requirement, allowing tech companies access to cheap labor.
Recently, a group of former Harley Davidson employees have sued Infosys, claiming that the firm discriminated against American workers in its capacity as staffing consultant for Harley's tech support unit – some alleging that they were laid off after training their Indian counterparts.
...as well as low-skilled employees
High-tech isn't the only sector that yearns for imported labor. Up to 200,000 lower-skilled workers, such as hotel housekeepers and home health aides, could eventually be brought into the U.S. each year to work in low-wage occupations.
Dubbed the "W" visa, the new program would be driven by reported vacancies in various employment sectors, so the year-to-year visa numbers could vary. Persons brought into the country under the W visa would be able to petition for permanent residency status – and, unlike H-1B visas, would not be tied to their host employer.
Why do employers need these new W visas? In a USA Today story, a nursing home chain representative explains that Americans don't want the type of jobs they offer, which involve lifting patients and facing violence from those with illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease. The work is "tough", the representative acknowledges – and the hourly pay is only $9.50.
With high-wage tech jobs and low-skilled jobs being covered by foreign work visas, where does that leave American workers? Certainly not filling mid-wage positions, most of which disappeared during the Great Recession. In fact, the loss of those jobs created "job polarization", which pushed many workers into lower skilled occupations – the very jobs that W visas seek to fill with non-domestic labor.
There is no doubt that immigration reform needs to be addressed, and that humanitarian issues are extremely important when considering any legislation of this magnitude. But, American workers should have their needs put at the top of the priority list when it comes to filling jobs on U.S. soil. Only then will true immigration reform be possible.