A Discussion on the Future of Work is a Discussion on Immigration

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and opportunities of the current U.S. immigration system while focusing their discussion on the missed opportunities of outdated policies, the difficulties of addressing skills gaps in an uncertain regulatory environment, as well as the perception-based realities of the national dialogue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.

The wide-ranging topic of immigration and the future of work in America drew attendees from a variety of different backgrounds.

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.

Chris Lu was only the second Asian American in history to become a deputy secretary of any cabinet department. During the first term of the Obama Administration, he also co-chaired the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

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.

“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.

In her role at IBM, Meredith Singer regularly lobbies government officials, coordinates HR policy priorities in the U.S., writes legislative language, and represents IBM across a variety of coalitions and associations.

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.

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.

Moderator Jon Baselice uses Cultural Vistas’ wall map to locate the birthplace of Laura Minero (right)—a PhD candidate and DACA recipient.

“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.

Join us next time! In addition to thought-provoking discussions, events hosted by Cultural Vistas provide opportunities for networking and refreshments.

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.”