An immigration bill you've never heard of will solve US's labor shortage

H-1B visas by the numbers
H-1B visas by the numbers

Richard Burke is the president and CEO of Envoy, a global immigration and workforce mobility platform that helps employers through the process of hiring foreign talent. The opinions expressed in this article belong to him.

We are facing a critical shortage of skilled labor in America.

According to the Labor Department's latest jobs report, we're in the strongest labor market in decades. But that has left the country with a severe shortage of skilled workers.

In some Rust Belt states, there are as many as 15 science, tech, engineering and math-related job postings for every unemployed STEM worker, according to a new report by New American Economy, a coalition of business leaders and mayors working toward immigration reform.

The Immigration Innovation or "I-Squared" Act has been proposed to tackle this issue. But it's gotten lost amid our nation's divisive immigration debate.

Sponsored by Republican Senators Orrin Hatch and Jeff Flake, the I-Squared Act promises to strengthen the US job market, enable the Trump Administration's "Buy American, Hire American" policy and address concerns regarding visa abuse.

Related: H-1B reform bill seeks to expand annual quota

How would it do this?

First, it would increase the total number of available H-1B visas, a fiercely-debated pathway into the US for skilled foreign workers.

The current H-1B allotment is capped at 85,000, but applications have approached three times the cap in recent years, with 236,000 in 2016.

The I-Squared bill would allow for up to 110,000 additional H-1B visas to be available if vacancies remained after the initial visa cap was met.

But welcoming highly skilled workers into the country is at best a short-term solution. Immigration policy that sets the stage for long-term economic prosperity must provide a path for foreign national workers to make a life here with their families.

I-Squared acknowledges this reality.

It would continue providing work authorization visas for spouses of H-1B visa holders, greatly improving quality of life for workers and their families and harnessing the real power of H-1B visas.

Still, many foreign nationals are facing another serious problem: Arbitrary per-country limits on green cards mean some have to wait several years, if not a decade.

For skilled workers who came to the country with children, the problem is especially urgent. Given current backlogs, many of these children are at risk of being forced to leave the United States when they turn 21 and the federal government no longer considers them dependents, according to a report by nonprofit advocacy group Immigration Voice.

Related: Trump administration cracks down on H-1B visa abuse

That policy would not only hurt individual families, it has the potential to harm the entire economy. Today, 40% of Fortune 500 companies were either founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, according to New American Economy.

I-Squared would remove arbitrary per-country limits for employment-based green cards and adjust caps for family-based green cards, easing a major source of uncertainty for high-skilled foreign national workers and their families.

That shift could have dramatic implications on workplace productivity. According to Envoy Global's annual Immigration Trends survey, 42% of employers noted that the biggest change from last year is an increase in anxiety and questions about immigration status from foreign national employees.

Even with all the benefits immigrant workers can bring to the country's workforce, detractors of the H-1B visa program argue that unscrupulous employers use the H-1B program to bring in foreign national workers at below-market rates, displacing American workers.

This bill rightly tackles this potential abuse in a two-pronged way. First, it raises the salary level at which H1-B-dependent companies, or companies with more than 15% of their workforce under H-1B status, pay foreign workers and receive an exemption from certain hiring requirements.

The bill raises the minimum annual salary companies must pay H1-B workers from $60,000 to $100,000 so they may bypass certain rules, such as those that forbid US employers from replacing American workers with foreign ones.

But the higher salaries also help reduce the odds that the H1-B worker is being hired at a less competitive rate.

Second, it expressly requires that H-1B workers not replace any American workers. In other words, employers are prohibited from hiring an H-1B worker with the express intent of replacing an American worker already in that position.

Related: Trump toughens H-1B visa renewal process

Finally, the I-Squared bill makes provisions for a future where the US workforce has the skills our employers demand.

While US employers have steadily added jobs for 89 consecutive months, many cannot find the workers they need because of the mismatch of skills.

I-Squared would allocate H-1B visa application fees and those for H-1B-related green cards to retrain US workers, thus ensuring a richer pipeline of domestic talent in the future and giving American citizens the tools to secure fulfilling employment.

There's no question that we need reform in the visa system.

Senators Hatch and Flake have presented a compelling set of solutions to the system's current problems. For the United States to remain a dominant force in the global economy, we need Congress to give this bill the consideration it deserves.

Update: This article has been updated to explain that companies that depend on H1-B workers and pay said workers the minimum annual salary of $100,000 outlined in this bill would receive an exemption from certain hiring requirements.

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