Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Biden seeks more foreign workers while skirting H-1B visa uproar

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Joe Biden’s immigration overhaul seeks to allow more skilled foreign workers into the US without stirring widespread protest from labor groups, whose opposition would all but ruin prospects for what is already one of the president’s most precarious priorities.

The sweeping proposal Biden sent to Congress on his first day in office drew quick Republican opposition over its centerpiece: a faster path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US. Another provision would allow more foreign students and workers to enter the US by increasing the number of employment-based green cards.

Business groups view the proposal as a way to increase the supply of coders and other skilled tech workers for US companies without raising caps on programs such as the H-1B visa for high-skilled workers.

Companies like Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. have for years pressed to increase the number of tech workers allowed into the US, saying they need engineers from countries like India because there aren’t enough skilled Americans. But efforts to expand the workforce through H-1B visas have drawn a backlash from unions and immigration opponents, who argue that the companies overlook US talent to hire foreigners at lower salaries.

The Biden proposal seeks to sidestep a conflict with organized labor by leaving the annual H-1B quota untouched. The measure instead clears a path for more foreign workers to eventually enter the country by eliminating a decades-long backlog of people waiting for employment-based green cards, which grant permanent legal residence and are capped at 140,000 per year under current law.

“This bill, signed into law, would be a tremendous improvement for legal immigration in this country,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group founded by tech industry leaders.

Business group leaders have discussed an immigration overhaul with Democratic and Republican staff in the House and Senate, according to industry officials working on the issue. The talks have focused on finding areas of bipartisan consensus that can help advance an overall package, including keeping science-technology-engineering-math graduates in the US; providing legal status for so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children; and streamlining the employment-based visa system.

So far, labor groups are supporting Biden’s approach.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised Biden’s framework as “bold” and said its path to citizenship “will help to raise standards for all workers.” The labor group declined to comment on the proposed changes to the employment-based visa system.

Service Employees International Union, which represents mostly lower-wage workers, as well as United Farm Workers, joined a multimillion-dollar advertising and public relations campaign in support of Biden’s immigration plan.

Nandini Nair, an immigration lawyer at Greenspoon Marder LLP, said Biden’s approach goes “a long way” toward satisfying unions’ concerns.

“You’re dealing with the individuals who are already here in the US versus this narrative that foreign workers are coming to the US and taking jobs,” Nair said.

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