Udall call for immigration reforms | VailDaily.com

Udall call for immigration reforms

Veronica Whitney

A local immigration attorney says U.S. Rep. Mark Udall’s request for reform of a foreign worker program is logical, but could be an overreaction.

Udall, a Boulder-based Democrat who represents Eagle County, last week called for reform of the H-1B foreign worker program after a government report he released revealed weaknesses in the government’s ability to track H-1B workers or to verify their work conditions. The reforms are apparently geared toward better protecting American workers.

“This is one of many things happening in reaction to fear of terrorism and fear of losing U.S. jobs,” said Sienna LaRene, an Edwards immigration attorney. “But this is going in the direction of an over reaction. Any program should be looked at hard. The H-1B visa program has served the business community in the U.S. so well for so long.”

The H-1B visa program allows U.S. businesses to bring in a few specialty workers, such as internet computer specialists, doctors, teachers, high-level executive chefs, high-level hotel managers, architects, engineers and scientific researchers.

“A resort community like the Vail Valley would be in a lot of trouble without the H-1B specialty occupational program, or the H-2B temporary seasonal program,” LaRene said.

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Ten percent of LaRene’s entire caseload are H-1B visas. Those, she said, go to teachers in the school system’s foreign-languages programs, some accounting firms, specialty chefs and hotel managers.

“These foreign workers give a certain flavor,” she added. “It’s not a huge drop in the bucket, but it’s critical for us to have that drop in our community.”

Data lacking

Last week, Udall, ranking member on the Science Committee’s Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee, released a General Accounting Office report entitled “H-1B Foreign Workers: Better Tracking Needed to Help Determine H-1B Program’s Effects on U.S. Workforce.”

Udall asked the General Accounting Office to look into questions regarding what occupational categories H-1B workers were approved to fill; what is known about H-1B petition approval and the employment of U.S. citizens in the last two years; what factors affect employers’ decisions about the employment of H-1B workers and U.S. workers; and what is known about H-1B workers’ entries, departures and changes in visa status.

“The last two years have reminded us that the economy can go down as well as up and that job opportunities may not infinitely expand,” Udall said. “We need to have some flexibility to help employers respond to rapid changes in production needs, but we can’t sacrifice American workers and families in creating that flexibility.”–

Because of a shortage of data at the Department of Homeland Security, the General Accounting Office was unable to document either the impact of H-1B workers on employment conditions or unemployment rates for American workers.

“Congress has tried to find a fair balance between the needs of industry, especially the information technology sector, and those of our workers,” Udall said.

A global edge

LaRene said the H-1B program has been so successful, it has made American businesses stronger. “By peppering a few high-leveled jobs, they were able to hire more American workers. If we can make a company better, why not give it a global edge,” she said.

In the report, the General Accounting Office suggests several steps that should be taken to better protect American workers, including:

– The Labor Department should be given broader authority to investigate workforce conditions in those places that rely on H-1B workers.-

– The Department of Homeland Security must: improve its visa status tracking systems and match them against entry and departure data; and should issue regulations on consistent treatment of unemployed H-1B workers, which it has been authorized to do for two years but has not followed through.

Udall said that unemployed H-1B workers floating in the American job market may crowd out other unemployed American workers in a tough labor market, and regulations are necessary to give these visa holders clear guidance on what to do when their positions are terminated.

Udall said that not having this in place has security implications as well as employment implications and the Department of Homeland Security should accelerate this deployment before its 2005 target date.-

“Any program can have abuses, what (Udall) is trying to do is to keep it strong,” LaRene said. “Still, there’s a benefit for a U.S. company to bring a few very special people from outside the country who will help the company expand so that they can hire more U.S. workers. Foreign workers at a high level have a different perspective to be more globally competitive.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.

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