Workforce.com

Immigration Reform Keeps SHRM Grounded

June 17, 2013

Max Mihelich is guest-posting for Ed Frauenheim today.

It's my first time at the Society for Human Resource Management annual convention. And I have to admit, initially, it was overwhelming to be surrounded by thousands of people seeking all kinds of information on how to better manage their employers' human capital.

The individual booths hoping to attract those thousands ranged from laid back to absolutely confusing—I'm thinking about you, booth with a man dressed up like Willy Wonka. And you, too, booth with giant 'Despicable Me 2' characters. How these movie characters relate to HR is lost on me.

I drifted across the exposition floor for a couple of hours, stopping by the more "normal" vendor booths, accumulating a nice, useless cache of swag and speaking with the individuals working the various product displays.

The employment law firms that showed up for the convention kept it grounded in reality. Their presence acted like a counterweight against the absurdity of over-the-top vendor booths and beckoning movie characters, serving as a reminder of the more-pressing issues facing employers. Issues like immigration reform.

I had the chance to sit in on a briefing with two representatives from SHRM and its affiliate American Council on International Personnel about immigration reform. It was refreshing to listen to somebody talk about something that could actually affect employers sometime soon, as opposed to another bland spiel about the next great innovation in HR.

According to the immigration reform experts, the United States' ability to remain competitive in the global economy is strongly linked to the passage of the proposed immigration reform bill currently being discussed in the U.S. Senate. Lynn Shotwell, ACIP's executive director, said the current bill will give employers and different classes of workers easier access to both permanent and temporary visas—Greencards and H-1B visas, respectively. For example, the bill proposes increasing the minimum amount of H-1B visas to 110,000 for a given year, with the potential to reach 180,000.

The increase in both kinds of visas is intended to alleviate the large vacancies affecting the tech industry. "By 2018 there will be more than 230,000 advanced degree STEM jobs that will not be filled, even if every new U.S. STEM graduate finds a job," according to an ACIP pamphlet on immigration reform.

While most experts I've talked to on this subject are generally pessimistic about the passage of some kind of immigration reform, Mike Aitken, SHRM's vice president of government affairs, said, "We have the best shot at comprehensive immigration reform since 1986," when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Aitken's area of expertise is the bill's proposal to expand the use of E-Verify. While he says the current bill is attempting to correct the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986's failure on E-Verify, he said the current bill isn't doing enough to correct the old bill's failure.

Aitken and Shotwell both said they wish the current bill would make E-Verify completely electronic instead of the multistep process currently found in the bill. Under the proposed law, employers will still need to fill out a paper I-9 in addition to running the identification of an application through the electronic E-Verify system.

According to Aitken, the paper I-9 can cause major headaches for employers.

"We've had members sanctioned and fined on the I-9s for not writing out the full state's name, for example. So it's not really a knowingly hired violation, it's a paperwork violation. We think if you went to an entirely electronic system, you'd take care of a lot of that. And it'd be more efficient for the employer and the employee," Aitken said.

When asked why the immigration reform bill would require a paper I-9 to be filed by employers, Aitken replied, "The government likes to have paperwork."

The ACIP is hoping the Senate amends its E-Verify provision in a way that would make it completely electronic. Aitken and Shotwell both mentioned the immigration reform bill being devised in the House includes such a provision.

Personally, it seems like it would be a lot easier to have a completely electronic employment verification system and to do away with the paper I-9 forms, as it sounds like they carry a good deal of risk for employers even when they fill them out in good faith that their candidate is allowed to work in the U.S. However, it seems employers are going to be stuck with the paperwork for some time to come.

Max Mihelich is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Mihelich on Twitter at @workforcemax.