The Biden Administration has made immigration a core issue of its agenda. While many of the headlines focus on pathways for individuals and families, there have been significant changes on the business immigration front, as well. After a difficult four years for global mobility, there is a clear effort underway to improve opportunities for foreign-born workers in the U.S.
While we may not see comprehensive immigration reform—a highly sought-after goal among immigration lawyers and our clients for quite some time—the direction so far has yielded significant progress towards a more efficient, predictable environment for HR leaders and their employees.
Such predictability is an important principle for everyone involved: immigration agencies, employers and employees who must stay in compliance. When all parties know what’s required, and what will be required in the future, those engaged in the immigration ecosystem can function more smoothly and create more predictable outcomes.
On the other hand, as the Brookings Institution notes, visa holders and agencies alike suffer when there is regulatory whiplash. “Unpredictability diminishes the law’s knowability and transparency, eroding the fundamental principles of rule-of-law and putting agencies at risk of being rebuffed by courts for issuing rules that are arbitrary and capricious.”
HR departments understand the importance of predictability, as they strive to create and maintain a transparent process for foreign employees who rely on visas to come to the U.S. They want nothing more than to provide clear, accurate information so that their workforce can focus on their roles and obligations.
The new administration is helping to create that more predictable environment. At the highest level, the major reform initiatives under the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 would bring a significant shift. “Dreamers” would benefit from expedited green card eligibility, the backlog of employment-based visas would be cleared, and spouses of H-1B holders would be granted work authorization.
In terms of “on the ground” efforts, some crucial regulations instituted by the previous administration have now been reversed, helping to re-open borders and employment opportunities. Biden quickly put a halt to the widespread ban on immigrant workers, which was originally introduced to prevent entry by those who were thought to present a risk to the U.S. labor market. He also put a hold on changes to the H-1B lottery, including the controversial wage-based allocation system.
Just as important, the new administration chose not to restrict some visa types that were on the proverbial chopping block. These include H-4 EADs (for spouses of foreign workers) and STEM OPTs (for those studying in STEM fields), which were both threatened by proposed bans under the previous administration.
Impact on the workforce
Understanding how regulations can be navigated is crucial to building the best workforce. Foreign-born workers are particularly integral to a company’s near-term performance and long-term leadership, especially in fields like life sciences and technology. Simply put, there are more scientific and technical roles to fill than there are U.S. citizens with the right skills. Foreign-born talent often has the perfect mix of education and leadership ability to make significant contributions to the success of a company.
Consider that 44% of the Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. Whether educated in the U.S. or abroad, the ranks of high-profile immigrant stars are well known in the corporate world. Moderna’s Stephane Bancel, Pfizer’s Albert Bourla, Vertex’s Reshma Kewalramani, Tesla’s Elon Musk—some of the most prominent leaders in corporate America came here from other countries.
In fact, a study of immigrant corporate leadership by INSEAD (Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires) found that out of 147,336 U.S. executives for which educational background was available, 3,098 corporate leaders were of Chinese ethnicity, 3,095 Indian, and 1,395 Middle Eastern. The remaining 139,748 were from other ethnicities, including European. As the study authors noted, “If the U.S. hopes to address its leadership shortage as its population ages, it needs to embrace immigration, and acknowledge the significant contribution that immigrant executives already play.”
With foreign-born talent as a driving force in our economy, HR professionals have to be equipped with the tools and guidance they need to attract and retain these workers. They must be prepared to welcome people with different experiences, different cultures, and the different backgrounds that help foster innovative solutions.
Part of that equation is understanding that foreign-born employees have an additional layer of stress to manage: extra anxiety around their visa status, how long they will be in a certain place, whether their families will be uprooted, and whether their work will be disrupted.
The Biden administration’s early efforts provide the first steps to create a more efficient, predictable system. We anticipate more progress that will ease some of the corporate immigration challenges and open new doors for global mobility.