Immigration Reform Means Different Things to Clinton, Trump

By Roy Maurer Oct 19, 2016

U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have both said they will make changes to the country's immigration system, but what they actually intend to do is not certain.

Trump has pledged strict immigration enforcement, mass deportations, mandatory E-Verify for employers, an overhaul of guest worker programs and a repeal of some of President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration, which allow for deferred deportation and work authorization for certain unauthorized immigrants. 

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
U.S. Presidential Election Coverage

For more information about where the candidates stand on workplace issues, check out the SHRM resources provided below:

· SHRM's full election coverage
· Clinton policies · Trump policies

Clinton has promised to renew movement on a comprehensive immigration reform package in her first 100 days in office, which may include increasing quotas for guest worker visas and available green cards for foreign workers and legalizing the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

"Both nominees have proposed immigration reform principles including changes to the employment verification process and the availability of employment-based visas, which will have implications for the workplace," said Chatrane Birbal, a government relations senior advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). "U.S. immigration policy changes will no doubt influence employment policy, sparking new workplace trends. HR professionals need to be proactive and aware of these changes to keep their organizations in compliance with employment and immigration laws, whether within the U.S. or globally."

Immigration reform has become a slogan, experts agreed. "It means one thing to people that support a major overhaul to the immigration system, and it means something else to those who support mainly an enforcement-focused set of changes," said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a think tank and research center based in Washington, D.C. "Both candidates have signaled their point of view, rather than really giving us discrete plans. The implicit is more telling than the explicit with both of these candidates."  

Enforcement First

Trump has made immigration—specifically, illegal immigration—a foundational issue of his campaign. He has delivered an enforcement-first message, focusing on border and worksite enforcement and protecting U.S. workers' jobs. He noted in his 10-point plan on immigration, issued in August, that he wants to reform legal immigration to best serve the interests of the United States.

"Trump says he would boost wages for foreign workers [to dissuade American employers from hiring them] and put U.S. workers first for open jobs," said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at New York University School of Law. "This means a stronger labor certification system, where employers will have to prove U.S. workers are not being displaced when they seek to hire foreign workers."

He has said "that he wants to limit or even eliminate certain important immigration programs like the J-1 visa cultural exchange program or put a pause on the issuance of green cards and require employers to hire an American worker first before hiring an H-1B professional," said Rebecca Peters, director of government affairs at the Council for Global Immigration, an affiliate of SHRM. "These are all proposals that would limit employers' ability to hire the talent they need to grow innovation and jobs here at home and ultimately the economy."

Trump has also spoken about deporting millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., temporarily suspending immigration from certain parts of the world, ending birthright citizenship, sunsetting U.S. visa caps in order to periodically revise them and keeping immigration levels within historic norms.

"Last year, we gave 1.3 million people green cards," Chishti said. "For a good part of the 20th century, we issued 300,000 to 500,000 green cards per year. Trump would argue that that is not consistent with historical pattern."

Trump also mentioned in August that the selection process for visas is "archaic" and that immigrants should be judged by their "merit, skills and proficiency," an idea resembling the points-based immigration systems used in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

"He clearly wants to give preference to people based on their supposed effect on the labor market," Chishti said. "He is in effect saying that we should cut back on visas to lesser-skilled workers and those selected on the basis of family unification in favor of visas to higher-skilled, more-educated workers, with a heavier emphasis on employment-based selections," he explained.

But while it seems Trump would recalibrate visa selection toward employers and workers, the number of overall employment-based visas issued would decrease.

"Employers need to be very worried about a Donald Trump presidency if they sponsor folks for permanent residence or temporary visas," said Bill Stock, founding partner of Klasko Immigration Law Partners in the Philadelphia area and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "He has said he would use presidential authority to bar entry to various categories of people and aggressively limit immigration."

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, noted that if Trump were to reopen trade agreements, as he said he would, "he might seek to adjust the guest worker provisions to limit the inflow of workers from Mexico and other countries covered by those agreements."

The candidate is also advocating for a nationwide E-Verify system, which would electronically screen all new hires for their eligibility to work in the United States. Some experts believe imposing an E-Verify mandate while a significant portion of the labor force is undocumented would be challenging. "The key to reducing illegal immigration is a functioning employment verification system," said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America's Voice, an immigration reform group. "But to do that with 8 million undocumented workers in the labor force will exacerbate all the problems we have with the status quo, driving people further underground, leading to worker exploitation and disfavoring honest employers."   

It's conceivable that a mandatory E-Verify program will garner support in the next Congress, Birbal said.

Another Stab at Comprehensive Reform

Clinton has stated that she would make comprehensive immigration reform a top priority during her first 100 days in office and expand upon  Obama's executive actions, which allow certain immigrants to defer deportation and apply for three-year work permits.

She has indicated that the reform package would look similar to the legislation that cleared the U.S. Senate in 2013, which included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, higher numbers of guest worker visas, a nationwide E-Verify mandate and a plan to clear up the decades-long green card backlogs.

But "while Secretary Clinton wants to make immigration reform a priority, she has yet to fully lay out plans on high-skilled employment-based immigration," Peters said. 

Frankly, she hasn't said much about legal immigration, Chishti agreed. "But in using the comprehensive immigration reform slogan, that's the equivalent of saying she intends to address all aspects of immigration reform, which would include legalization of the undocumented population, enforcement—including the use of E-Verify—and dealing with future flows. If you don't allow for more robust legal channels for people to come in the future, then they will continue to come illegally."

Peters listed three areas where Clinton has stated a position that touches on high-skilled immigration, including:

  • Enabling international students who complete master's and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to move to green card status. "She … acknowledges our immigration system is plagued by visa backlogs and other barriers that, for example, require talented persons from other countries who are trained in U.S. universities to return home rather than stay here and contribute to our economy," she said. "This idea is one that would be helpful to business given 68 percent of employers have difficulty filling full-time positions, often in STEM jobs." 
  • Advocating for "start-up" visas that allow entrepreneurs from abroad to come to the United States and build companies, creating jobs and opportunities for American workers. 
  • Training up to 50,000 computer science teachers in the next decade and encouraging STEM programming in public schools. "While this idea might not seem directly tied to immigration, it is important that employers are growing and investing in U.S. worker education and training if they are hiring foreign nationals," Peters said.

Vaughan said she would expect to see an expansion of all employment-related immigration under a Clinton administration, "since she has been an enthusiastic ally of the corporate interests that push for such expansions, including the technology industry here and the tech body shops based in other countries," referring to the mostly Indian IT outsourcing firms which are awarded the majority of H-1B visas each year.

In addition, Clinton's stated interest in pursuing more expansive trade agreements indicates that she would "likely use those agreements as a way to permanently wedge the door open for large-scale admission of professional workers on temporary visas in the name of trade-in-services," Vaughan said.

Chances for Major Reform

The 2016 U.S. congressional election results will be the unknown factor in the calculus for reforming immigration. "If Clinton is elected and Republicans maintain control of both chambers, forget about legislation; we'll be talking about what kind of state and local progress can be made," Sharry said.

Peters noted that even if the Democrats gain control of the Senate, it is likely the House remains under Republican control, and if Paul Ryan is re-elected as Speaker of the House, Clinton would have to work with him and his caucus to get any reform moving. 

"Clinton would need to find a way to work on her larger immigration reform goals in pieces, as any Republican majority in the House would likely want to first address an immigration border security or interior enforcement bill," Peters said.

Rob Engstrom, senior vice president and national political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that the business lobby remains optimistic that a bipartisan solution can be crafted on immigration policy if Trump were to win the election.  

Stock said that any likely attempt at comprehensive reform—whether it's done in one swoop or piecemeal—must contain provisions for enforcement, border protection, future flow, a mechanism by which demand for labor in the U.S. can be determined, and legal worker visas to meet that demand. "If there's work for people to do, there ought to be a visa to come in and do it," he said. "If we get a compromise like we did in 1986, where we got enforcement and legalization but neglected future flow, it proved to be insufficient to solve the problem."

For more SHRM coverage of Donald Trump's ideas for change in the workplace and Hillary Clinton's workplace policies, please visit our 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Coverage page.


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