Over the past year, perhaps no issue has been as contentious in American politics as immigration. As immigration--both legal and illegal--rises to unparalleled heights, it's dividing the small-business community, which both benefits from immigrant labor and, particularly in border areas, can be hurt by massive immigration.
The immigration issue is also dividing Washington, but not always along party lines, as Entrepreneur's "Point/Counterpoint" team, New York Democratic congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and Arizona Republican congressman Rick Renzi, reveal.
Entrepreneur: Broadly, how do your small-business constituents view the rise in immigration?
Rep. Velázquez: Many view the immigrant work force as a vital source in meeting their labor demands. This is not an issue of businesses wanting cheaper labor; it is because with the current system, small businesses are having a hard time finding and retaining the skilled work force they need. American employers would not be seeking foreign workers if there were available domestic workers.
Rep. Renzi: They very much rely on immigration for the labor pool. Immigration for me is a personal issue. My wife's family immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Her great-grandfather came here with nothing and was given the opportunity to provide for his family [with a small business]. Legal immigrants make up the foundation of our country. But [small-business owners] are trying to balance that with the idea that the border is being overrun with illegal [immigrants]. We need control over the border and some kind of economic program to bring in immigrants legally.
What can Congress do to help small businesses more easily get and keep skilled foreign workers, and to fill the types of positions businesspeople need?
Renzi: I don't think we should have a cap on these skilled-labor visas. We have a high-tech corridor in Tucson, Arizona, and Phoenix, and they are reliant on H-1B visas [which are given primarily to foreign scientists and engineers].
Velázquez: I agree. With this nation's growing technology sector, the need for skilled workers, especially in the math and science field, only continues to grow. When no domestic workers are available for these technical positions, the H-1B visa program fills the gap.
The H-2B visa program was created decades ago to allow employers to fill seasonal positions. However, times have changed. No longer is the H-2B visa program used to fill just temporary positions--it is now also [used] to fill long-term employment needs. Unfortunately, the H-2B visa program, due to its inflexibility, restrictive caps and bureaucratic structure, has fallen short in helping to address [long-term employment]. One of the unfortunate outcomes is the growing [number] of undocumented workers in this country. [We need] a program that allows essential workers to enter the U.S. without displacing domestic workers.
How far should Congress go to help ease access to foreign workers? And when should access be restricted because it threatens American jobs or security?
Velázquez: The number of H-1B visas has been capped at 65,000 per year. [Recently], the need was so great that it resulted in an additional 20,000 being added in anticipation of a rushed demand last year. For now, Congress needs to make sure that as long as safeguards are in place, there is more flexibility on the cap for the H-1B visa program. But to address this situation on a long-term basis, we need to increase the number of individuals that our country graduates in the technology, science and math fields.
Renzi: A guest worker program for [immigrants] can work. For skilled workers, the job should be offered to an American first for 45 days [before a foreigner gets it]. And then Homeland Security needs to figure out how to track H-1B and H-2B visa holders.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a writer in Washington, DC.