U.S. immigration law is a myriad of statutes, regulations, policies, memos, practices and procedures which span a wide variety of practice areas. The immigration debate playing out in the media is largely focused on the refugee, humanitarian, and family-based areas of immigration law. But this is only part of the picture. Immigration law also includes employment- and investment-based immigrants, seasonal/agricultural workers, the transfer and employment of high-skilled and professional workers, and short- and long-term visas for executives of global organizations, actors, athletes, and entrepreneurs.
This dichotomy of the perception of immigration law is not unique to the U.S. The Guardian recently examined this issue in the U.K., suggesting the main divide is whether someone is an expat or an immigrant; and concluded that the distinction is based on race. Looking at the issue in Hong Kong, a Wall Street Journal blog attributes the divide to differences in social class, country of origin, and economic status. In the U.S., the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report entitled The Integration of Immigrants into American Society, a comprehensive look at US immigration, which, probably most accurately, points to status in understanding this divide. Legal status, or more acutely, the lack of legal status limits opportunities of integration, access to social services, housing, education, and employment. The key difference in the perception of immigration may therefore be an effect of the cause –the lack of viable, realistic legal immigration options for U.S. families and employers.
This divide, and focus of national attention, has not gone unnoticed by the billionaire tech execs in Silicon Valley, where immigration isn’t just about securing the border, it’s about enabling U.S. employers to compete in a global economy. FWD.us, started by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, was established to tackle the lack of immigration options for U.S. employers and to urge Congress to pass sensible immigration legislation.
And the reasoning is simple: current immigration laws put U.S. employers at a major disadvantage when seeking to hire talent. While foreign-owned businesses may be able to utilize visas designed to facilitate intracompany transfers or to promote international trade and investment, U.S. employers are limited to the H-1B visa category. As a result of its ridiculously low, arbitrary cap, H-1B visas are allocated through a lottery system whereby U.S. employers must rely entirely on luck to determine whether a skilled employee may be hired. The work of Fwd.us and similar business-focused groups is critical to keeping the conversation about immigration informed, but if we are seeking a real change and improvement for U.S. employers, this focus too is limited.
The U.S. immigration system is filled with arbitrary limits, requirements, and processes that were often set more than a generation ago and have no basis or relevance to the realities of today’s business world. What is needed is a review and overhaul of our entire U.S. immigration system. Rather than focusing solely on the politically-charged sound bites on who should or should not be removed, the immigration conversation should focus on a full evaluation of all aspects of our laws, policies and practices, including employment-based immigration, family-based immigration, refugees, humanitarian relief, and visas to facilitate cultural enrichment, athletic competition, entertainment and the arts, investment, and innovation.
There is strength in numbers. Immigrants, migrants, businesses, and non-profits should band together and urge Congress to face reality. The above referenced NASEM report found that effects of a lack of legal status are so influential that they cut across race, sex, and age and are passed through generations with parents’ undocumented status in particular affecting the development of children, even when the children are U.S. citizens.
We’re hamstringing our economy and our nation. Our immigration laws unnecessarily limit options for families and employers. Narrow interpretations of the laws unnecessarily hamper businesses and make integration of those navigating the system difficult if not impossible. While a presidential candidate’s radical statements on limiting immigration may make headlines, the solution lies in a much deeper analysis. As we head further into campaign season for the 2016 Presidential and Congressional elections, it behooves all of us to keep the broader picture in mind.
Written by Anastasia Tonello, AILA Second Vice President