By Olivia Just
Foreign-born, college educated workers make up almost a third of the workforce in Fairfield County, underscoring the significant impact that changes to immigration laws would have on the region's businesses, according to Joe McGee, vice president of public policy at the Business Council of Fairfield County.
McGee, along with other members of the business community, representing companies large and small, discussed the most pressing issues regarding immigration reform with U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn. at the Stamford Innovation Center on Wednesday.
"It always surprises me how immigrant-dependent we are in Fairfield County," McGee said.
A similar story echoed around the table during the discussion: skilled, highly educated workers from other countries are spending years in "green-card limbo," despite having jobs in technology or engineering at local firms. This puts both their livelihoods and the work they do for area employers in a precarious position, said Jennifer Leahy, human resources manager at the Norwalk-based etouches, a web-based event manager.
Leahy spoke about one of the company's developers from India, who has been in the U.S. for six years and is still waiting for a green card; his wife hasn't been able to find any work.
"It's really creating a hardship for this man and his family, and for the local economy as well," Leahy said. "As a technology company, we have a strong need for highly skilled tech workers. It's very hard to recruit American skilled labor. I think the issue that's very important is access to green cards and accelerating that process."
As Congress prepares to address immigration reform within the next six months, Himes said he is "optimistic" that something will be accomplished, given the agreement he's seen in proposals from the Senate's "gang of eight" and the president's own goals.
"This is an emotional issue and problematic issue, especially with the majority in the House," Himes said. "But there is a real opportunity to think about restructuring the visa program for highly trained immigrants to get some legal status here."
Himes also expressed concern that American skilled labor is so difficult to find, while Liwen Yaacoby, president and CEO of Greenwich-based software company Techwuli, said that startups have a particularly hard time getting U.S. recruits. Yaacoby, who manages a number of Techwuli's employees overseas, also noted that having these offshore employees can almost become more challenging and expensive for companies, with the cost savings in employee wages offset by the extra time and effort spent managing workers remotely.
"People who are highly skilled often already have jobs," Techwuli said, explaining the difficulties in recruiting labor. "Startups can't pay Wall Street money. So, you tend to go for students who are willing to take slightly lower wages, but computer science students are so in demand that they tend to not last. And, a lot of foriegn-born students would like to work but they don't have the papers and, when they graduated, you don't know where they're going to end up."
The current limitations on H2-B work visas, which allow foreign-born workers to stay in the country for a period of three years, are an issue for many U.S. companies, like Pitney Bowes and United Illuminating, among others, as regulations have changed over the years and higher fees are being charged for the renewal of visas. About 66,000 H2-B visas are issued by the government every year, for workers providing a company with skills that an American worker cannot.
"The 66,000 current cap on H2-Bs is a big issue," David Lebowitz, assistant general counsel, human resources legal at Pitney Bowes. "The cap is a low number so something has to be done to address that. A very important point that gets lost in the mix is that the real burden on these employees is that they have this uncertain process stretching out for a long time."