Experts: U.S. Immigration Policies Are Making It Harder to Fill Job Openings

By Steve Bates July 16, 2018
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​The Trump administration's immigration policies and procedures are making it more difficult for U.S.-based employers to fill job openings, according to talent and immigration experts.

The government has stepped up its scrutiny of visa applications, resulting in delays and higher costs for hiring foreign workers.

"Immigration policy has resulted in a shortage of talent," said Sean Dowling, a Boston-based partner and manager of recruiting strategy firm WinterWyman.

The unemployment rate has fallen below 4 percent, but more than 6 million jobs were vacant in mid-2018, and many employers trying to fill positions have exhausted sources for U.S. workers.

"Companies are trying harder to hire U.S. citizens," said Abhijeet Narvekar, CEO of The FerVID Group, a recruiting firm based in Houston. Often, when recruiters find U.S. citizens with the talent and experience employers need, the workers have already progressed to senior or advisory roles and are hesitant to re-engage in lower-level work, he said. Or they have better compensation or opportunities for career advancement.

In turning to foreign workers, employers are finding increased paperwork, delays and costs. According to a report from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in Washington, D.C., the Trump administration has initiated several changes in regulations, administrative guidelines and application processing procedures for visas, all designed to curb legal immigration.

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Mounting Delays and Costs

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is challenging and denying more applications for the popular H-1B visa, which brings skilled workers into the U.S. for up to six years. In the first eight months of 2017, USCIS sent employers 45 percent more request for evidence (RFE) forms in H-1B cases, according to MPI. RFEs seek documents to prove the need for a visa.

Workers who already hold H-1B visas are popular targets for recruiters because it's easier to apply to transfer them to different jobs in the U.S. than to seek new visas. However, even these transfers are requiring more time, effort and expense because of increased RFEs from USCIS.

Recently, Narvekar was helping a global company in the petroleum industry fill an earth modeling job. The candidate needed very specific expertise in advanced disciplines such as geochemistry and geophysics. Narvekar's firm found a qualified candidate who is originally from Iran. It took three months to get USCIS to approve the visa status.

In the past, the process could take as little as a month. "It was never easy. But the scrutiny is much greater now," he said.

Because of the added red tape, "A lot of companies are shying away from sponsoring or doing a visa transfer. The alternative has been to hire [U.S.] college graduates and train them," he said. However, many of these workers get poached by big companies.

Dowling said that he is seeing RFEs "in a majority of cases" involving H-1B transfers, even for requests for visa extensions with current employers. "USCIS is taking a harder look to make sure they're not displacing U.S. workers," he said. "They're asking a lot more detailed questions."

Narvekar said some small companies can't afford the time and expense to continue the process.

Bogging Down

Ashley Inman is a corporate immigration manager for Ferrovial Services, a multinational company based in Madrid that is expanding its U.S. operations. She needed to bring a financial planning analyst, an insurance manager and a strategic bid manager to the U.S. from Spain—just long enough to train U.S. workers for those roles.

Inman, who is based in Austin, Texas, decided to use the L-1B visa program for temporary U.S. deployments of Madrid-based Ferrovial employees with those skills. The process bogged down, in part because of President Donald Trump's April 2017 executive order―Buy American, Hire American―which directed federal agencies to protect the interests of U.S. workers.

Though she was successful eventually, she warned employers: "Be prepared for stricter regulations and extreme vetting. There are more delays and more paperwork."

Politically Charged Issue

Immigration is one of the most politically charged issues in the country. Trump favors reducing immigration, stating that foreign labor displaces U.S. workers. He has supported a merit system that would give priority to visa applicants based on factors such as education, job skills and the ability to speak English.

Studies from liberal, conservative and politically neutral organizations have all found a positive link between immigration and economic growth.

"What we're seeing from the administration—rhetoric and policy—is not going to play out well in the U.S. economy," said Aparna Mathur, resident scholar of economic policy with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. "It's going to hurt us. We need immigrants for economic growth."

Alex Nowrasteh, senior immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., said that fewer than 500,000 workers come to the U.S. annually and that most are here temporarily. Some experts say that curbing immigration will further restrict the labor pool.

Mathur noted that fertility rates in the U.S. are declining, and many Baby Boomers are retiring. "There's a gap in the market. It's something the administration has to understand," she stated.

"We have to make it a lot easier for people to come to this country legally," Nowrasteh added. "We need to create a more mobile labor market."

In recent years, Congress has launched numerous efforts to reform the immigration system but has come up short.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and its affiliate the Council for Global Immigration (CFGI) issued a statement on June 20 recommending a bipartisan solution to the immigration system's woes. SHRM and CFGI "support fair, innovative and competitive immigration solutions that build the future workforce, including solutions that address long green-card backlogs and do not cut legal immigration," the statement read.

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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