Joel Pfeffer: Immigration must shift to employment model |
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In a recent Rose Garden speech, President Trump outlined his administration’s immigration plan. Unfortunately, it offered little in the way of specifics, bullet points for those interested or written guidance for lawmakers. This creates a challenge for those concerned about legally admitting new immigrants into America.

America’s current immigration structure is stagnant and built off legislative reforms passed in 1965 and more recently — if you can call it that — 1986. America desperately needs a system that prioritizes employment-based immigration rather than its current policies, which emphasize family relationships and diversity.

In the president’s speech, he advocated a “merit-based” system that focuses on bringing “highly skilled” workers to America. Defining just what his administration means by “merit-based” is difficult and does not go far enough in addressing the needs of U.S. employers. As always, the devil is in the details.

U.S. unemployment is at its lowest level in a half-century, meaning there aren’t enough people to fill the near-record 7.5 million job openings earlier this year. Meanwhile, of the 1.2 million permanent visas the U.S. grants annually, only 140,000 are for permanent employment-based immigrants and their dependents. This means that there are actually fewer than 140,000 employment-based immigrants getting visas. It isn’t nearly enough to adequately address the labor shortage, which extends to positions at all skill levels, not only jobs requiring “highly skilled” workers.

At the same time, protecting U.S. citizens’ employment prospects must remain a priority. As we know from the past, the unemployment rate can change quickly, such as during the recession of a decade ago. A possible means to guard those opportunities would be for Congress to create a range in the number of employment-based visas offered in a given year to be adjusted by the Department of Labor based on unemployment and other statistics. Hashing out the particulars of such a plan is the responsibility of the White House and Congress, but reforms of this sort encourage work-based immigration while defending American jobs.

Along with expanding the number of employment-based immigrants for the U.S. labor market, any immigration plan must take the burden off employers themselves. Currently, employers are forced to invest a great deal of time and money to bring in immigrant employees, with no guarantee of success with a bureaucratic process involving up to three government agencies. Even a successful effort can result in securing permanent status for employees who then can quickly move on to other jobs. America needs a better mechanism for establishing what skill levels are needed to meet the labor pool’s demand and how to select foreign nationals to fill the needs.

Even if the Trump administration were to deliver a hard-copy immigration plan filled with minute details, it is hard to imagine it passing through a Democrat-controlled House. Still, having the conversation is important. It is the duty of Congress and our nation’s top thinkers to devise fixes to a broken system, even if it’s accomplished step by tiny step.

We are a nation built by immigrants. Relatively few citizens can trace their ancestry back to the original colonies. Instead, our forebears came here for a better life, finding work at all levels, from construction and mining to bookkeeping, and opening their own businesses.

Realigning our immigration system to one focused on those coming here for jobs does not betray our values. It only provides badly needed help to employers, welcomes those who want to contribute to our nation’s powerful work ethic and enhances what is good for America.

Joel Pfeffer is an attorney with the Pittsburgh-based law firm Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP.

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