On immigration reform roadmap, bipartisan group pinpoints small business concerns

August 21, 2013

A bipartisan coalition of former government officials has outlined several recommendations for comprehensive immigration reform, including some it believes would help businesses — particularly small ones.

The report was released this week by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, in an attempt to reignite interest in an immigration overhaul, which has stalled in the House of Representatives after legislation passed rather swiftly through the Senate.

“It is critical to remember that we are working to improve a fundamentally flawed system,” the group’s immigration task force wrote in the report. “We must be careful that, in pursuing our own individual ideals, we do not sacrifice good results for the sake of the perfect, leaving in place the current broken structure.”

Chairing the task force are Condoleezza Rice, a secretary of state under President George W. Bush, Henry Cisneros, a housing secretary under President Clinton, Haley Barbour, former governor of Mississippi, and Edward Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania.

Among their recommendations are a number of proposals aimed at reviving the economy. In that section, they identify a number of problems that plague entrepreneurs and small business owners — groups that have, to this point, offered mixed reviews of the immigration reform bill being considered in Congress.

Here are some of the center’s recommendations that would directly affect employers, particularly small business owners.

• Increase employment-based immigration: “Increased economic immigration will grow the U.S. economy and is the best tool for preventing future unauthorized immigration,” the authors write. “Employers need workers, and immigrants who face limited opportunities in their home countries want to come to work in the United States.”

Many entrepreneurs, especially those in the technology and start-up communities, have used this argument to push for more visas for highly skilled workers, arguing that some of the top talent in the world lives outside the United States. In order to compete on a global scale, they say they need to be able to hire from overseas.

• Connect visa levels to labor market shortages: “To protect American workers while serving the needs of the U.S. economy, employment-based immigration levels should fluctuate depending on labor shortages and on the nation’s economic strength; new workers should be directed toward shortage occupations,” they write.

Start-up advocates have also argued that there are simply not enough computer programmers, software engineers and other technology experts to meet surging demand across the country (though others have reported that such shortages are a myth). In response, lawmakers have proposed that reforms should cater to industries in which there is not a sufficient supply of qualified job candidates, which they say will avoid robbing Americans of employment opportunities.

• Give small businesses better access to temporary workers: “Many unauthorized immigrants work for small businesses that often struggle to comply with complex regulatory requirements for recruiting foreign workers,” the report says. “Temporary worker programs need to strike a careful balance between being simple enough for employers (particularly small businesses) to use and ensuring that employers do not exploit workers or displace American workers.”

The authors go on to suggest a simple procedure for small firms that only want to bring in a small number of foreign workers, arguing that it would cut down on paperwork and other bureaucratic hurdles without leaving the program vulnerable to firms that want to game the system and hire a slew of immigrant workers.

• Set harsher penalties for employers who cheat the system: “If employers are going to have access to more workers, they must be subject to stricter penalties for exploiting and hiring unauthorized workers,” they write.

Some critics have warned that temporary work programs are little more than a means for companies to displace American employees in favor of foreign workers who will do the same job for less. In response, the task force argues, as have many labor groups, that any expansion in the number of visas or easing of administrative hurdles must be packaged with measures to crack down on business owners who try to cheat the system.

What do you think of the task force’s suggestions? Do you think these changes would help or hurt start-ups and small businesses? Please Share your take in the comments below.

Follow On Small Business and J.D. Harrison .

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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