IBC pushes Congress for immigration reform

IBC pushes Congress for immigration reform

Grassley, Ernst tell business leaders they support more employment visas, with caveat

The Des Moines Register, Tyler Jett

Sept. 6, 2019

Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley told Iowa business leaders this week that he supports recruiting more immigrant labor here — as long as he gets oversight measures. 

Arguing they don't have a deep enough talent pool in Iowa, the Iowa Business Council asked Grassley and other members of Congress during meetings Wednesday to support some changes to employment visa rules. 

A skeptic of the H-1B visa program that brings high-skilled workers to the United States, Grassley told the council that he empathizes with corporate executives' concerns. The executives want the federal government to increase the number of H-1B visas distributed every year, and they want temporary workers to be able to stay in the country longer than they currently can.

"I'm willing to give increased numbers," Grassley told the Register after Wednesday's meeting. "But I think that we should have the program serve the purpose it was intended to."

He said any legislation to increase employment visas in the United States must also require participating companies to use the Department of Homeland Security's E-verify system. In theory, the system alerts employers to workers who are in the country illegally by comparing the worker's identification and other employment paperwork to information from Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. 

Grassley has tried to rein in the employment visa program since 2007, arguing that some companies bring in cheap immigrant labor to replace American workers. In 2015, he unsuccessfully introduced a bill that would block employers from adding H-1B workers if more than half their workforce was already here under the visa. The legislation would have also required companies to submit more data to the federal government. He unsuccessfully pushed a similar bill in 2017.

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, who also met with the council Wednesday, said in a statement that she is open to increasing the number of employment visas as well, "as long as the program is monitored closely and securely, all with the focus of helping keep our state's economy growing."

U.S. Reps. Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer, both Democrats, met with the group later Wednesday.

"These issues you're asking me about could easily fit into a comprehensive bill," Grassley said. "But I don't think you're going to get a comprehensive bill until you show that the border's secure."

Created in 1990, the H-1B visa is designed for foreign workers who bring a "body of specialized knowledge." These workers typically have a bachelor's degree or higher, and are to be hired only when an employer cannot find a similar quality worker in the local talent pool. The government awards 85,000 new H-1B visas every year, though workers seeking renewals do not count toward that cap.

The Business Council, a nonprofit consisting of the leaders of 23 of the state's largest employers, also asked to speed up the application process and to allow recipients' spouses to work in the United States. 

The group has advocated for temporary workers, who work on farms and in factories through H-2A and H-2B visas, to be permitted to stay in the country longer. Their visas typically don't last longer than a year, according to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.

Pella Corporation President and CEO Tim Yaggi said his company, which manufactures windows and doors, cannot expand in Iowa because the population isn't big enough. The state's 2.5% unemployment rate, the third-lowest in the country, makes the labor market even more challenging. 

Earlier this summer company officials opened a plant in Jacksonville, Florida, where they say they will employ 135 workers. Another plant with 125 employees is slated to open in Reidsville, North Carolina, next month. 

Yaggi said Iowa's slow growth rate means fewer home builds than in other states, and that means fewer windows and doors are needed, too. 

"Iowa needs to grow," Yaggi said. "The places where we're adding capacity, manufacturing capacity, and pulling in labor are places where there's high population growth, as opposed to adding people in Iowa."

He said Pella Corporation has applied for H-1B visas to bring information technology workers from India. With a more liberal cap on this program, the company could also add more engineers. He said the company also uses temporary H-2B visas to bring in employees to work the floor at the plant.

Unlike Grassley, Yaggi does not believe companies are advocating for visas while rebuffing capable American workers.

"We're at the point, with such a low level of unemployment in Iowa and in this country, that's generally not going to be the case," he said. "We need more employees to grow our business."

Iowa business leaders have pushed for an increase in immigration here for more than a decade. In 2008, the Greater Des Moines Partnership released a compact supporting new immigration rules. (They released an updated compact in February, again calling for policies to increase international talent in Iowa.)

"The No.1 issue among businesses across the state is talent," Partnership CEO Jay Byers wrote in a Des Moines Register op-ed on March 6, along with Iowa Association of Business & Industry President Mike Ralston and Ames Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dan Culhane. "The time is now for a productive approach to the future flow of talent in both our state and our nation."

The Association of Business & Industry released a survey of CEOs in June, in which 93% said the state needed to embrace international labor. (Another 73% said they supported the E-verify system.)

On a larger scale, the National Association of Manufacturers detailed their immigration policy positions in February. They called for the federal government to double the cap on annual H-1B recipients and allow other temporary workers to remain in the country longer. They also said they support E-verify. 

While the cap on H-1B visas hasn't changed, Des Moines immigration attorney Lori Chesser said she has noticed stricter scrutiny under President Donald Trump's administration than she did under President Barack Obama. She said some clients who are seeking a renewal of their visas run into trouble with government regulators, who question whether the workers really possess a special skill set.

She said immigration officials have doubted whether data analysts should be approved, for example. The workers don't receive special degrees, like doctors and lawyers. But, Chesser argued, they have been trained for years to sift through bulk data and provide insights to companies.

"They're taking the most restrictive view," she said.

She has also advocated for the increase in employment visas and signed off on the immigration compact that the Partnership released earlier this year. 

"It isn't tied to need at all, especially for states like Iowa," she said of the current immigration policies. "We have such a labor shortage and such trouble recruiting. It's really hurting all business — but Iowa business, especially."