Beki Grinter

Immigration: Employment Controls in an Age of Giganomics

In immigration on October 1, 2011 at 10:11 am

A colleague of mine, Beth Mynatt, recently spoke at the World Economic Forum. She came back with many ideas, including introducing me to the idea of giganomics. Giganomics is economics for a time in employment when people are far more likely to have a series of “gigs” than become the “organization man”, someone who has a single job for life. The idea of giganomics caused me to reflect once again on the immigration system we have in the United States, and the one we might want.

Employment-based visas (I am deliberately excluding family-based and marriage-based here) are controlled. The purpose of the control is to ensure that the labor market remains favourable for citizens and permanent residents, while simultaneously creating advantages for the country by being able to capitalize on foreign talent. This seems very reasonable in the abstract.

Employment-based visas typically come with three forms of controls today: employer, time and caps. Most visas tie their holder to a particular corporation, exclusively. In the age of giganomics I wonder whether this is the most effective way to control a visa. For one thing, it puts large employers with their full-time immigration staff, their financial resources, etc… in far better positions than it does small to medium size corporations such as start ups.

My H1-B worked this way, and when I left Lucent and moved to Xerox, the six months I spent in the United Kingdom was waiting for my H1-B to be transferred from one organization to another. We can, and I certainly did, blame the INS for slow processing times. Perhaps we should also inspect this notion of employer controls. Are there some visas for whom being tied to an employer is not the advantage that we want to create in the American labor market? Who would those people be? Would the University play a role in identifying them?

The second set of controls involve periods of time. After this period of time is up, immigrants have either moved on to another visa or its time to leave. The H1-B is a good example, it is valid for a total of six years, but those six years are broken down by three years, two years, and then a final one year. I’m wondering whether this periodicity is helpful? It means that the default is that the INS process the same person three times in the course of six years.

It maybe the case that its considered desirable to keep a close eye on the employee or have the ability to say that their skills are no longer required (and deny the visa), but employers can do this too by simply terminating the employee thus rendering their visa invalid, at least for those visas that have some relationship between being employed and visa validity. What if the periodicity was one six year visa, or two three year visas. Consider the amount of time and money saved by the individual, the employer, and the Government.

Caps (i.e., number available in a particular year) do get discussed, there are caps on the H1-B visa. Are there two few or two many, the cap routinely changes in response to employer requests. This fluctuation and the dialog between corporate America and the Federal Government, is that a good model for implementing this control? I don’t know but I think it’s worth asking, and it is reflective of more of a conversation between constituents, unlike my own feeling of being in a system that really never thought to communicate with me.

Anyway, on the day when the caps for visas are reset, Oct 1, the start of the Federal Government’s fiscal year, I want to put another shout in for a conversation about immigration that doesn’t begin and end with policing illegals, but also includes a discussion about what we, the American people, actually want for our country, what we want in terms of a system that encourages the best of foreign talent while preserving advantage in the labor market for citizens, and how we might control it while also considering the costs to individuals, employers and the government for executing on those controls.

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