Cultural Vistas kicked off its 2019 events calendar by convening a panel discussion on “Immigration and the Future of Work in America” on Thursday, January 31 in its Washington, D.C. offices.
An esteemed panel brought together perspectives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, IBM, a former Obama administration official, and the Miller Center—a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia as well as a partner of the special event.
Panelists highlighted the challenges and opportunities of the current U.S. immigration system while focusing their discussion on the missed opportunities of outdated policies, the difficulties of addressing skills gaps in an uncertain regulatory environment, as well as the perception-based realities of the national dialogue on immigration.
Immigration Politics Lead to Patchwork Fixes for the Melting Pot
Regardless of their thoughts on the current administration’s immigration policies, the panelists acknowledged that immigration issues have long been contentious politically—resulting in the immigration system that we have today.
“It’s basically a series of patchwork fixes to a broken system,” said Chris Lu, drawing on his decades of experience across all three branches of federal government—most recently as a Deputy Secretary of Labor in the Obama administration.
Panelists agreed that the problems with the current immigration system were a result of politicians unwilling to address the controversial topic of comprehensive reform.
“Immigration tends to be the third rail of American politics,” said David Leblang, an expert in political economics who is currently a Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Virginia as well as a Director at the Global Policy Center of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.
Indicative of how neglected the topic of immigration reform has been, Leblang also noted the irony of how President Trump’s attempts to follow through on campaign promises in stemming immigration have actually helped reopen the dialogue on the issue, and may lead to more comprehensive reform in the near future.
“It’s not because there’s a lack of solutions, it’s because there’s a lack of political will.”
— Cultural Vistas (@CulturalVistas) January 31, 2019
“This is the first time, at least in my memory, that we’ve seen a President who has said, ‘I’m going to run on immigration; I’m going to try to do something about it,’” he said. “This is why we’re seeing immigration come to the fore in a way that I haven’t seen, in terms of presidential politics, in years past.”
Big Business Solutions to Skills Gaps Face New Challenges
But in addition to reopening the dialogue on immigration, the panel noted how many of the rapidly implemented policies of the new administration have been difficult to adopt and counterproductive, even for intended beneficiaries.
Meredith Singer, a Government & Regulatory Affairs Executive at IBM who serves as the Chair of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Immigration Subcommittee, provided an on-the-ground perspective of some of the difficulties big businesses currently face in hiring skilled workers.
For instance, U.S. tech giants are often the top employers of approved H-1B visa applicants and consider it a great tool in tackling skills gaps. In fact, nearly half of Fortune 500 companies were founded by first or second-generation immigrants—many of whom were H-1B visa holders themselves.
H1-B holders in the United States can rest assured that changes are soon coming which will bring both simplicity and certainty to your stay, including a potential path to citizenship. We want to encourage talented and highly skilled people to pursue career options in the U.S.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2019
But despite these benefits and the administration’s promise to improve the H-1B process, Singer said it is challenging for companies to manage against the outpouring of new regulatory and sub-regulatory changes.
Perceptions of Immigration Matter because they Create Roadblocks to Reform
Beyond the historical, political, and bureaucratic difficulties of implementing meaningful reform, the panelists also discussed how the perceptions of immigration influence the political realities of immigration policy—more-so than research, statistics, or even traditional party ideologies.
“The problem is immigration, like trade, often… it’s the difference between the perceptions and the reality. When you go to a small town, everybody will tell you a story about a factory that they believe left because of trade, automation—they’ll blame loss of jobs, immigrants—even if none of that is true,” said Lu.
Unfortunately, even those with the greatest access to current statistics and data on immigration are not always convinced.
In the context of the contemporary discussion on immigration resulting in the longest government shutdown in history, the panel noted the power of perception in shaping our political realities.
“You talk about how the levers of power aren’t working. I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment,” said panel moderator Jon Baselice, Director of Immigration Policy at the Employment Policy Division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—who previously worked as a Legislative Assistant in the office of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.
“When you have a member of Congress go back home and they have a rowdy town hall—they’re grabbing the lever too—they’re just pulling it a different way.”