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AILA Testimony on Benefits of an Educated Workforce

Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 99032557 (posted Mar. 25, 1999)"

Testimony of Laura Reiff

Committee of the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims on the
Benefits to the American Economy of an Educated Work Force

March 25, 1999

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today before the Immigration Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee on the subject of immigration and the skill needs of American employers. I am Laura Reiff, a partner at the law firm of Baker & McKenzie, where I specialize in immigration law. I am here today in my capacity as Immigration Counsel for Ingersoll-Rand – a position I have held since November of 1992. My legal work for Ingersoll-Rand consists of a broad range of immigration and immigration-related issues.

My testimony today reflects my work with, not only Ingersoll-Rand, but many other companies whose ability to find vitally needed workers is crucial to their bottom line and our country’s economic well-being. I also have brought with me today Sarian Bouma, an immigrant whom I will introduce shortly, whose life story reinforces the positive impact of immigration on both the workforce and our economic well-being. The message I came to deliver here is that employers today need the skills and vitality that comes from both family and employment-based immigration. Both streams of immigration are central to employers’ ability to find the workers they need.

I want to put this message into a broad context before focusing on the specific stories I am here to tell. While I am not an economist or labor market specialist, my years as an immigration attorney helping businesses find needed workers tell me that the following data from recent studies reflect current reality and project future needs.

The skill levels of immigrants are on the rise: A recent study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that the average skill levels of legal immigrants (in all immigration categories) from 1972-1995 are rising when compared to the native born U.S. population. In addition, the labor market skills of male legal immigrants are as high or higher on average than that of native-born workers. Unlike earlier studies, this data using annual INS records of all new, legal immigrants is more reliable than previous studies that depended on census data that did not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. (NBER, The Changing Skill of New Immigrants to the United States: Recent Trends and Their Determinants.)

Since 1993, the strong labor market has reduced unemployment rates sharply for workers with all levels of education: Unemployment rates in this country are at record low levels. What is less obvious is that the increase in the employment rate has been greater for workers without a high school diploma (a 9% increase) than it has for workers with more education, people with a high school diploma (a 2.5% increase) and those with a college degree (a 1% increase). The economy has been creating sufficient numbers of low-skilled jobs to employ more people without a high school education and keep employed those already in the labor force. (White House Council of Economic Advisors’ 1999 Economic Report of the President, February, 1999.)

Employers’ need workers at all skill levels, and the demands of a service-producing economy will continue to require workers with what we label both high and low skill levels. A 1997 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report to Congress notes that the skill distribution of employment in 2005 will mirror the skill distribution in 1994: about 50% of jobs will require post-secondary education, and the other 50% a high school diploma or less. This report also documents that many occupations with limited educational requirements are experiencing "above average rates of job growth or substantial increases in employment levels." (Congressional Research Service, "The Educational Skill Distribution of Jobs: How Is it Changing?" 1997).

Employers in all industries and Human Resource Organizations I work with continually tell me that they have on-going needs for technicians, clerks, cashiers, sales workers, home health aides, child care workers – jobs where much skill may be required and acquired through training, but little formal education. And certain industries, hospitality and the service sector, are finding it particularly difficult now to have their manpower needs met. What is clear today is that help wanted signs are everywhere!

The above is underscored by the experience of Ingersoll-Rand, a Fortune 200 company with about 48,000 direct employees worldwide, and about 28,000 domestic employees. Its international headquarters are based in New Jersey and the company in 1998 had annual sales in excess of $8 billion. The Ingersoll-Rand Company operates manufacturing plants in over 21 countries around the world and markets its products and services, along with its subsidiaries, through a broad network of distributors, dealers and independent sales and service/repair organizations.

Ingersoll-Rand is an American company that strives to keep the majority of its manufacturing operation within the U.S. borders. Unfortunately, market forces and the unavailability of U.S. workers have created a problem of identifying and retaining U.S. workers across the spectrum of skill levels. Let me give you an example. The company manufactures a broad line of industrial machinery and equipment. The Construction & Mining Group ("C&M") based in Garland, Texas, is engaged in the design manufacture, and sale of rotary drill products with industrial, mining, and water well drilling applications. The division has annual sales in excess of $150 million. This Group has been looking for welders for major projects for some time. Welders are semi-skilled employees that are not considered professionals. The company has recruited for welding positions across the U.S. They have recruited at military installations, shipyards and through employment services. Ingersoll-Rand even has a training school for welders and has been unable to identify persons to attend this type of training. When the company did identify welders in Mexico, the process of obtaining permanent residence or even temporary visas was too time consuming and onerous to be considered a viable option.

Situations like this drive projects overseas, resulting in a loss of U.S. jobs and a decrease in U.S. spin-off revenue. This situation exemplifies not only the need for workers across the spectrum of skill levels, but the problems in employment-based immigration that need to be fixed.

Data regarding the projected workforce needs, along with my work with numerous U.S. employers, reflects the fact that both family and employment-based immigration are necessary to help this nation meet its current and future demands for workers. This need is, and must not be viewed as, a zero sum game. We need the skills and qualifications of immigrants who come here through both employment and family based immigration. Employers repeatedly tell me that they need workers across the entire skill spectrum. Can this country use more immigrants with high skills? Sure we can. But we also need immigrants for entry level and lower-skilled jobs. Immigrants admitted through the family visa system satisfy this skill spectrum demand. While we justify their admission on the basis of kinship, these immigrants contribute to our economic well-being.

To exemplify this contribution I want to pause now and introduce Sarian Bouma, an immigrant from Sierra Leone who received her green card through her marriage to an American citizen. She arrived here poor, and now is the founder, President and CEO of Capitol Hill Building Maintenance Company, Inc, a company with current annual sales of $1.8 million. Ms. Bouma’s company has over 200 employees. Remembering her own earlier struggles, Ms Bouma’s staff includes 165 people who were welfare recipients and/or homeless. She encourages them to continue their education and accommodates their changing schedules. They are graduating from college, buying their own homes, and becoming stable, contributing members of their communities. Nominated by an employee, Ms. Bouma was the recipient of the 1998 Welfare to Work Entrepeneur of the Year award from the National Political Congress of Black Women, named the Small Business Administration’s 1998 Entrepreneur of the Year at both the state and national levels, and recently was appointed by Maryland’s Governor Glendening as a cabinet member of Maryland’s Economic Development Commission.

Sarian’s story reinforces what we long have known and held true: that immigrants admitted through the family visa system contribute to our economy. While we support and justify their admission on the basis of kinship, these immigrants also contribute to this country’s economic well-being. Immigrants admitted through the family immigration posses skills and gain meaningful employment that contributes to the economy.

Changes that are needed in immigration to increase the number of skill-based immigrants can and should be accomplished by reforms that have nothing to do with family-based immigration. These reforms all have to do with employment sponsored immigration programs and would allow the use of many more of the 140,000 business immigration visas now authorized under the law. (This past fiscal year only 99,000 slots were used.) Such reforms include eliminating the per-country limitations on employment based categories and eliminating the long delays and backlogs in the current employment- based system. Specifically per-country limits restrict employment-based immigration, the goal of which is to allow individuals with needed skills into this country, because of the accident of the country of birth of the individual. The current backlogs in processing at the Department of Labor and the INS also further restrict the use of the full number of employment-based visas allowed, simply because the agencies cannot process the number of applications they receive in a reasonable amount of time. Time frames of 3 to 6 years for an employment-based visas simply are unrealistic in the current fast paced business climate. The point here is that changes are needed to the existing employment-based immigration system that could bring in workers with needed skills. It is unnecessary, and even harmful, to look to the family based immigration system to do this.

So we do not need to, nor should we support, changes in family-based immigration to achieve the goal of increasing the number of skilled immigrants. We can do that without implementing any changes in family-based immigration by reforming the aspects of employment-based immigration noted above. Employers currently need and will continue to need workers of all skills levels, a demand that family-based immigration helps to fill. At the same time, we must not forget that the main goal of family-based immigration is to reunify close family members through an orderly process that is highly regulated and highly selective. While the needs of U.S. employers are important, they should not be viewed in conflict with, nor supersede, that important goal. Those eligible for admission through their family relationships, spouses, children, parents and siblings, now often are forced to wait in backlogs from five years for spouses and minor children of permanent residents to more than twenty years for siblings of U.S. citizens. We need to address these backlogs, not implement reforms that derail family immigration. Attaching new restrictions on family-sponsored immigration, such as mandating a high school diploma as Chairman Smith has suggested in the past, violates our tradition of family reunification, changes the rules in the middle of the game, and actually may do more harm than good in fulfilling this country’s labor market needs.

Both family and business-based immigration are central to helping to ensure that this nation continues as the economic mecca of the world. Immigrants from both flows have been central to our country’s economic success. My experience and those of the many companies I represent that seek immigrants at all skill levels to fulfill labor needs, along with the hundreds of thousands of success stories of immigrants nationwide, as represented here today by Sarian Bouma, underscore the demand, not to further restrict family-based immigration, but to strongly support family-based immigration and to reform aspects of business-based immigration that artificially limit the numbers allowed in annually.

Thank you for allowing me to testify. I look forward to any questions you may have.