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Work Visas in High Demand Causes Shortage of Immigrant Workers

Job-based visas are in such a high demand that the government has resorted to a lottery-based system to award the documents. Still, only 28 percent of applicants will get a visa in 2022 as compared to 2014.

(TNS) — Employers are eager to hire more immigrants, if only there were enough visas to go around.

Job-based visas for temporary workers, including H-1Bs, H-2As and H-2Bs, are in high demand. So much so that the government has been using a lottery to award the documents in two of the programs.

One that’s not capped, H-2As for temporary agricultural workers, has grown almost 60 percent in the past four years. That’s a sign of how much U.S. farmers need help from beyond our borders.

H-1Bs, which are widely used for technology workers and other highly skilled foreigners, have been oversubscribed for years. With an annual cap of 85,000 new visas, the gap is growing.

For fiscal 2022, the government received 308,613 petitions for H-1Bs in the capped program. That’s 2.5 times more applications than in 2014, boosted in part because the government switched to a pre-registration system related to the lottery.

Less than 28 percent of petitions will get a visa in 2022 compared with 2014, when over two-thirds of petitions got a visa.

“We don’t have the people for all these tech jobs,” said Matt Bomberger, senior vice president of global sales and operations at Bresatech, a professional services firm in Plano that does staffing. “But we could have the people if we would just relax our immigration laws and allow those folks to come over.”

The workload is so intense now, he said, that some people are working 40 hours a week for their day job and putting in another 20 hours on assignments with a second company: “Some of our clients are so desperate they’re having to embrace this kind of new world order,” Bomberger said.

Temporary work programs are controversial. Employers and business groups are eager to expand the immigrant labor pool, arguing that foreigners fill jobs most Americans cannot or will not do. They point to research that shows H-1Bs complement U.S. workers, fill in gaps in science, technology and math, and help businesses grow.

The U.S. also needs lots of help now. Companies had over 9.2 million job openings in May, more than any month on record.

But labor leaders counter that guest workers drive down U.S. wages and sometimes take American jobs. While businesses complain about a lack of qualified candidates, the U.S. unemployment rate remains high at 5.9 percent. Nearly 9.5 million people were unemployed in June.

“There’s always this dynamic, and both sides feel strongly about their conditions at the moment,” said Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. “There are so many openings and so many unemployed people. It’s hard to know if this is a short-term adjustment or the early stages of a long-term demographic trend — with a shrinking working-age population and really strong demand for labor.”

As baby boomers continue to retire and the birth rate slows, the U.S. will need more immigrant workers. Gelatt and colleagues have created a policy road map to rethink legal immigration, starting with the fact that over 1 million people are waiting in line for years — mostly in the U.S. — for a permanent spot to open.

The over-65 population in the U.S. grew by over one-third in the past decade while the number of children under 18 declined. The burden of funding Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will be spread across a smaller number of active workers, the report said.

The aging population also will need more health care workers and personal aides, and immigrants have filled those roles historically.

“Current immigration policies are mismatched with market forces and demographic realities,” the report said.

The primary H-1B cap was set in 1990, and the economy and population have changed significantly.

“In 1990, these people worked at software companies; now, every company is a tech company,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of New American Economy, an advocacy organization for smart immigration policies.

Several industrial companies have engines and equipment with “more lines of code than a jet plane,” he said, and they’re big users of H-1B workers. He pointed to a study, released in 2014, that showed the cost of missing out on H-1Bs.

After the Great Recession, the study said, the U.S. tech industry would have grown substantially faster, adding over 230,000 jobs for U.S.-born workers, if so many H-1B applications had not been denied.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is pushing for major reforms. Last month, it called for doubling the annual cap on H-1B and H-2B visas, eliminating per-country caps on green cards and other immigration changes.

“An immigration system that functions well and meets the economic needs of the United States would go a significant way to addressing workforce shortages,” said Jon Baselice, vice president of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber.

Last month, he took his son on a trip to Pittsburgh, and the hotel was only halfway open because it couldn’t get enough help to keep the rooms clean, he said.

“The night manager said, ‘We’re just happy we could finally serve breakfast again,’” Baselice said.

The chamber said it would lobby hard for reforms, but Washington may not be receptive, said Gelatt of the Migration Policy Institute. Leaders are fixated on the border, refugees and the status of “Dreamers” — immigrants brought here as children.

The program protecting Dreamers was unlawfully constructed, a federal judge in Texas said last week, creating another potential crisis.

“H-1B levels and green card levels are very far from legislators’ minds, given everything else that’s happening,” Gelatt said.

The Biden administration has proposed an overhaul. The effort could gain momentum, she said, as more baby boomers retire and the number of unemployed falls — assuming labor shortages persist.

“Maybe then there will be more political space to work on immigration,” Gelatt said.

©2021 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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