The midterm elections are only days away, and one of the big, lingering issues that many fast growth companies and their supporters still confront is immigration reform.
But chances for comprehensive reform are dwindling, even as new reports of abuses of the H1B system for skilled foreign workers surface. Inaction, policy analysts and business groups suggest, is likely to constrain company growth due to limits on the numbers of qualified workers who can get visas to work for U.S. companies.
"It remains a really hard issue regardless [of whether] the Senate changes hands," says Emily Lam, senior director of federal issues for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which supports comprehensive immigration reform. "Key House members will have constituents really upset and trying to vote them out of office for supporting immigration reform."
Where things stand
To recap, immigration reform had seemed on the verge of passing just a few short months ago. In 2013, the Senate, by a substantial majority, approved a bill that would have eased visa caps and created a path to citizenship for many undocumented workers. The House shelved that bill this winter, and since then there's been very little discussion.
Although President Obama is reportedly considering tweaks to the green card granting process through an executive order, which could result in more green cards for qualified workers, observers are unsure whether that would hinder or hurt the larger process.
"It's a big wild card," says Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of industry advocacy and research for AmericanHort, a trade group representing the U.S. agricultural and horticultural industry. Agricultural industry lobbyists and lobbyists for the technology industry have often worked together for passage of comprehensive immigration reform. (There are roughly 2 million farm workers in the U.S., and conservative estimates suggest more than half are undocumented, Regelbrugge says.)
A bold presidential order could infuriate House Republicans, Regelbrugge says, or it could spur them to action on their own agenda. Regardless, momentum for immigration reform will have to come from the House after the midterms, since the House handed the Senate a defeat on the issue earlier this year.
"If Republicans pick up [a forecast] eight seats, the fundamental challenge does not change, and its likely the representatives coming in will be more negative on the immigration issue," Regelbrugge says.
High-skilled worker conundrum
Currently the number of H1B visas for skilled foreign workers is capped at around 65,000 annually. About 20,000 additional visas are available for workers getting advanced degrees in U.S. universities. But there is no clear path to citizenship after the H1B, and the yearly lottery for the prized visas is swamped with applicants.
And in a red-hot growth environment for tech startups, the need for highly-skilled employees is paramount.
One such company is ViralHeat, a social media analytics company based in Santa Clara, California. Founded by immigrant entrepreneur Vishal Sankhla three years ago, ViralHeat is rapidly growing, with 35 workers. Sankhla himself struggled for 13 years to get a green card, he says, despite creating numerous high-paying jobs for engineers and others at his company. And he currently struggles to find the workers he needs.
He hired one qualified engineer on a temporary work visa--the employee had just received a masters degree in computer engineering at a U.S. university--but the worker did not get an H1B visa in the lottery, because he was competing with hundreds of thousands of applicants, Sankhla says.
"We will have to start all over again and will need find a replacement in one-and-a-half years," if the worker doesn't get an H1B next year, Sankhla says.
More than anything, though, Sankhla says he wishes the issues of undocumented workers and documented foreign workers were separated, because the political outcry is often aimed against workers who are here legally.
"It makes it harder for the issue of legal workers to be taken care of properly," Sankhla says.
Among the issues that documented workers face, as reported on by the Center for Investigative Reporting, is visa fraud perpetrated by job brokers in the U.S. Such middlemen, who provide staffing to some of the largest U.S. tech firms, often entrap overseas workers seeking H1B permits. These workers, typically from India or other poor Asian countries, usually get jobs at U.S. tech companies for a fraction of the going rate for engineers. And they are slapped with punitive lawsuits, disguised as breaches of contract for upwards of $50,000, if they attempt to change jobs.
"The current system allows this to happen," Sankhla says. "That needs to be changed."