When President Barack Obama unveiled his Immigration Accountability Executive Actions in 2014, a measure supported by the National Association of Manufacturers, the media was focused on how the current administration’s immigration initiatives would affect the millions of undocumented workers. Very little media attention, if any, was given to how the proposed immigration changes would impact the lives of immigrants legally living here. Indeed, virtually nothing was said regarding the fact that the lack of immigration reform has put our manufacturing sector at a competitive disadvantage.
In 2014, it was estimated that the U.S. manufacturing sector was responsible for 17.4 million jobs, which is about 1/6 of all private-sector jobs. Although the economic recovery has been slowed and the labor participation rate is near a 38 year low, there remains an estimated 600,000 manufacturing jobs open. Indeed, a large number of these jobs are for highly skilled workers for which there are not a sufficient number of visas in a given year.
Specifically, every fiscal year, United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (“USCIS”) issues H-1B visas to highly skilled foreign workers serving in “specialty occupations at a professional level.” A specialty occupation requires theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge to be performed by a worker with at least the equivalent of bachelor’s degree in the field. Both the position to be filled and the foreign worker’s qualifications must meet the criteria for a specialty occupation.
Federal law provides for an annual quota of 65,000 new H-1B visas that can be issued in any given fiscal year, which runs from October 1 to September 30. There is also a separate quota of 20,000 H-1B visas per fiscal year for graduates of U.S. advanced degree programs, for a total of 85,000 H-1B visas. If USCIS determines at any time during the first five business days of the filing period that it has received more than enough petitions to meet the numerical limits, the agency uses a computer-generated random selection process—i.e., a “lottery”—to select a sufficient number of H-1B petitions that may proceed to adjudication. Petitions that are not selected are returned to the petitioning employer. This year, USCIS received over 236,000 H-1B petitions within the first week of filing, which means that about 2/3 of all petitioners requesting an H-1B visa will be unable to employ the skilled candidate of their choice, leaving a position open, and handicapping an employer from acquiring the talent they desire.
Leaving the selection of highly skilled workforce to chance can’t be the long term solution. Employers shouldn’t be forced to scramble to find highly skilled. There must be more certainty in the process with a solution that doesn’t result in placing U.S. manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage. The U.S. must take steps to modernize its immigration system by implementing much needed reform. Without immigration reform, U.S manufacturers will be unable to compete in a global economy.