Worker visas big part of immigration bill

The proposed revamp of immigration laws that is scheduled for release in the Senate today would increase the numbers of, and ease the process of obtaining, visas for highly skilled workers. The legislation also is expected to propose expanding the caps for farm workers, and it would force all employers within five years to verify the immigration status of their employees.

The status of roughly 11 million people who are already in the United States illegally has dominated the headlines, but what happens with business visas is both vital and controversial.

The software and high-tech sectors have lobbied for expanding professional visas, arguing that they can’t hire enough trained Americans. Similarly, agriculture companies want greater access to low-skilled workers for the jobs that few Americans are willing to do.

One of the most significant changes in the bill to be introduced by the bipartisan so-called gang of eight senators is creation of a program to address the middle-skill workers, many of whom make up the brunt of the undocumented workers who already are here.

“We don’t have a program for the people in the middle,” said Tamar Jacoby, the president of ImmigrationWorks, an advocacy group that’s pushing for expanded business visas.

This program, she said, would create visas for people who want jobs in food processing, construction, janitorial work and maintenance. Their potential employers would have to prove that they couldn’t find American workers to do the job, and would have to pay the workers higher wages than the industry average.

“That’s the way to prevent illegal immigration in the future,” said Jacoby, who thinks that the proposal for 75,000 of these visas by 2020 and 200,000 by the 10th year is far too small, especially the roughly 6,000 visas set aside for the construction sector.

“That’s the most absurd of all the numbers,” she said of the construction set-aside, adding that her group and many employers view the bill as only the opening of a drawn-out process. “Overall they did a terrific job, but you need to zoom in and expand it, and then it works.”

While awaiting its formal release, the worker-intensive manufacturing sector appears pleased with the legislation.

“The numbers are important, but really you can have really high numbers (of visas) and a structure that doesn’t get you anything. What we’re looking at is a framework that appears would work for our country, employers and for employees,” said Joe Trauger, the vice president of human resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.

Other changes that are expected in the proposed legislation, according to insiders who have seen it, include:

— Ensuring that the spouses of high-skill workers who are getting the H1B visas don’t count against the cap on the visas.

— Country allotments for high-skill visas would be reworked so that countries such as India, which provides a lot of high-tech workers, aren’t given the same allotment as smaller countries such as Monaco.

— Three-year farm worker visas are capped at 112,000 per year for five years, then the Department of Agriculture sets the cap.

— The H2A visa for farm workers would be phased out and replaced with a new agriculture visa.

— The E-Verify program for employers, now largely voluntary, would be mandatory within five years of enactment. All employers would have to verify the immigration status of their workers.