The last update to the number of permanent worker visas took place in 1990, the year Germany reunified. Our current legal immigration system does not meet our economic needs because our inflexible visa system constrains the growth of businesses, therefore undermining the competitiveness of the American worker and the livelihood of our families.
America’s dairy industry is a unique example: Farmers regularly report labor shortages and raise concerns about availability of reliable year-round labor. More than half of dairy laborers are immigrants, and 79 percent of the U.S. milk supply comes from dairies with immigrant labor, according to a 2015 Texas A&M report paid for by the National Milk Producers Federation.
Yet here’s the rub: We have no effective visa for the legal entry of such workers. The H-2A visa covers temporary, seasonal agricultural workers, but there is no “milk season”; milking cows is a year-round endeavor. The H-1B visa program covers temporary high-skilled workers, and dairy jobs do not meet the requirements.
People often seek progress on immigration reform by calling for a stand-alone E-Verify bill to guarantee a legal workforce. But without visa reforms, this type of enforcement program would gut the dairy industry, lower production of milk and increase dairy prices across the board.
That’s just one example. A functioning work visa program would control legal immigration, align it with our economic and social needs and minimize the incentive to skip the legal immigration process. Frankly, the smartest way to secure our border is to have a 21st-century immigration process that advances the social and economic interests of all Americans.
Here are other components of a visa process that works: First, a legal immigration process that includes visa numbers in line with labor and workforce needs will make it easier for employers to hire immigrants with documentation. Sourcing labor in this way will help create new upstream and downstream jobs in the United States, instead of outsourcing entire industries.
Second, a reformed visa system should allow foreign students educated at U.S. colleges and universities to obtain work visas and contribute their talents here after graduation. We should be stapling green cards, not plane tickets, to diplomas.
Finally, visa reform must keep the family at the core of our immigration process. American families with loved ones abroad face a growing wait for a visa allotment process that has not changed in a generation. Employment- and family-based visa reform should go hand in hand.
Congress, with leadership from our next president, can account for our economic needs in a way that benefits American workers and businesses alike. Visa reform may not electrify the electorate, but it is crucial.