In late 2014 President Obama issued an executive order that would grant legal status to 11 million undocumented immigrants and immigrant workers in the U.S.

The order followed years of impasse over immigration reform, which appeared headed for passage with strong bipartisan support in the Senate 2013, before the bill was torpedoed in the House. Now the executive order is headed to federal court as state challengers try to block it.

But immigration reform isn't dead, and that's a point that you shouldn't forget--particularly if your company is facing talent shortages. Lawmakers are once again weighing its merits--and parsing how to make reform happen, even if on a much more modest scale.

Congress is now poised to take up bills that could increase caps on the number of highly skilled workers able to enter the country and for green cards. So-called STEM workers, those with advanced education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, are in high demand by most high-tech companies, and can have a huge impact on the economy.

Those bills, and their plans for overhauling the nation's immigration system are contentious and were the subject of a debate on Tuesday, sponsored by the National Journal.

Among the points addressed:

  • Immigration reform may have a better chance of passing if it's done in pieces, rather than comprehensively.
  • New bills in front of Congress aiming to raise the cap on skilled workers, and create a special category of visas for entrepreneurs have a good chance of passing.
  • The debate over skilled workers may also create an opening for more visas for the lowest skilled workers.

A 'First Step'

"I voted against the senate immigration bill [in 2013]," said Senator Ron Johnson (R., Wisconsin), who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and who gave the keynote address. "It created a greater incentive for illegal immigration...and we need to reduce or eliminate incentives for illegal immigration."

Johnson, who worked in the private world as the chief executive of a plastic materials and packaging manufacturer prior to his stint in politics, notes that Republicans and Democrats often don't find common ground in the immigration debate. For example, some Democrats often dismiss the Republican focus on border security, rather than nodding to the reality that there's a border problem that encourages low-skilled workers to enter the country for work. Some Republicans, in contrast, can often be deaf to Democrats who see increasing the limits on highly skilled workers as a vital way to keep growing the economy.

Johnson dispensed with the idea that comprehensive immigration overhaul is possible any time soon, but he noted that immigration reform that allows for more highly skilled workers, and which allows for legal immigration of low-skilled workers, would necessarily follow stronger border controls as a first step.

High-Skilled Workers

Others participating in the morning talk disagreed on a piecemeal approach. Representative John Delaney,(D., Maryland) said a comprehensive ovearhaul was necessary to maintain U.S. competitiveness, and could add an average half-a-percentage point to economic growth annually in the coming decades.

"This is a knowledge-based economy where intellectual capital matters," said Delaney, who added that for every highly skilled foreign worker granted legal immigration status, it produces up to five jobs in the economy, based in part on the power of such immigrants to launch startups.

To address this gap, there are currently two bills before the Senate. One, called Startup Act 3.0, would grant visas to immigrants who start companies in the U.S. It was sponsored in February by Senators Jerry Moran (R., Kansas), Mark Warner (D., Virginia.) The other, introduced by Senators Orin Hatch (R., Utah) and  Jeffrey Flake (R., Arizona), called I-Squared, would lift caps on H-1B visas for highly skilled workers and student workers.

Low-Skilled Workers

Of course, there's a difference between low-skilled and high-skilled workers. Whereas the latter generally come here to be educated in U.S. schools and wind up staying for relatively high-paid work on H-1B visas, many of the former come here as undocumented workers seeking lower-paying jobs. They could be encouraged to work legally in the U.S. through an expanded guest worker program, Johnson suggested. 

Issues surrounding increasing caps on low-skilled workers are a bit more problematic, although industries like agriculture need them critically, noted Harry Holzer, a senior fellow at the American Institutes for Research, who participated in a panel discussion following the key note address.

Whereas more highly skilled foreign workers in the U.S are likely to be a net positive for the economy, that isn't necessarily the case for low-skilled workers.

"Unskilled workers probably have some modest negative effect on unskilled native-born workers," Holzer says, as they are generally willing to work for lower wages.

At the same time, highly skilled workers have been known to replace native born workers in similar fields. Such was the case recently, when the utility Southern California Edison laid off dozens of workers this winter, replacing them with engineers here on H-1B visas, noted the panel moderator Steve Clemons, Washington editor for the Atlantic.

Such situations could be fixed, in part, if workers here on temporary visas had access to citizenship through an expanded green card process upon graduating with advanced degrees.

"If you look at our history, we do immigration really but we have a broken legal immigration system," said fellow panelist Todd Schulte, president of, the immigration group started by Silcon Valley luminaries including Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer and Bill Gates. "We should fix the system so that it lets immigrants come here and create jobs for Americans."