Lawyers cautiously cheer immigration reform plan

By Kimberly Atkins

Dolan Media Newswires

BOSTON, MA--President Barack Obama and members of Congress have turned their attention to immigration reform, unveiling their ideas on how to overhaul the federal immigration system for the first time in 27 years.

Lawyers representing employers and immigrants are preparing their clients for the potential effects.

And while they are expressing optimism, saying a revamp of the system will benefit both workers and employers seeking to boost their workplaces by hiring skilled, authorized workers, their enthusiasm is muted by the failure of past immigration reform proposals.

"We have been through this so much that employers are cautious," said Grant Sovern, a partner in the Madison, Wis., office of Quarles & Brady. "But this time we seem to have a better idea of what may be coming because there is so much more momentum" in Washington.

Although the majority of visas granted to immigrants are based on their family relationships with U.S. citizens or permanent residents, lawyers said that any immigration reform package must also reform the process of obtaining work-related visas in a way that helps businesses while protecting employers and workers.

"The immigration system is currently not business need-driven," said Jorge R. Lopez, who co-chairs the Global Mobility and Immigration Practice Group in the Miami office of Littler Mendelson. "There is nothing wrong with family-reunification, of course, but there needs to be a focus on company needs as well."

Visa fixes, employment verification and higher penalties

A bipartisan group of eight senators unveiled a general framework for revamping the immigration system on Jan. 28 based on four legislative pillars: creating a path to citizenship for immigrants already in the country while securing the border; reforming the immigration system with a focus on the economy and family relationships; creating an effective way for employers to verify workers' legal status while combating identity theft; and improving the system of admitting workers in the future while protecting American workers.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement that one of the most important components of the plan is "to build out a nationwide electronic employment verification system that will end the hiring of future unauthorized workers."

A day later, Obama gave a speech supporting the framework laid out by the lawmakers while also stressing the need for other reforms. He focused on reducing the backlog that keeps employers and employees waiting for long periods of time for visas and granting families of same-sex couples the same rights as others. He also discussed creating a "startup visa" for those in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, giving broader discretion to immigration judges to keep families together, and boosting the penalties for employers who knowingly hire workers who are in the country illegally.

"We need to implement a national system that allows businesses to quickly and accurately verify someone's employment status," Obama said in a Jan. 29 speech in Las Vegas. "And if they still knowingly hire undocumented workers, then we need to ramp up the penalties."

Immigration and employment attorneys said that their clients strongly support immigration reform, but are waiting to see what the specifics of the plan will be once legislation is actually introduced.

"The devil is, as they say, in the details," said Laura Lichter, an immigration attorney at Lichter & Associates in Denver, and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "But this newly released bipartisan document shows that consensus is not only possible, but closer than ever."

Attracting and

verifying workers

Employment attorneys said their clients have long been frustrated by a system that creates red tape and delays for hiring workers from other countries. Reforms that cut red tape and reduce waiting time for employment visas are badly needed.

"A good system would be welcomed by employers," Sovern said.

But the process of verifying that employees are authorized to work has to be effective, particularly if the penalties against employers are boosted.

In recent years, the federal E-Verify system came under fire from business groups, which said it was plagued with problems and created false negative notifications, leaving employees with only a short time to straighten out any errors. If they didn't, employers were forced to fire them to avoid facing penalties.

Any new verification requirement would have to be accompanied by a process to check workers against a database that is not riddled with errors, and one that combats the issue of workers using false documents to avoid detection--concerns that are mentioned in the basic bipartisan outline.

"Right now, employers are in a tough place," Sovern said. "They don't always know if someone is authorized to work, but yet it always seems to be the employer's fault under the law [if they are not.] A good system that addresses these problems would be very welcome to employers."

Attorneys said companies are also looking for ways to speed the process of hiring employees they need with an array of specific skill levels. They are looking for measures that will expand the guest worker program for lower skilled workers as well as boost the ability of high-skilled workers - particularly those who get advanced degrees in the United States--to stay and work while seeking permanent status.

"I'm getting calls [from clients] saying, 'We need these workers. How do we fix this problem in the short term?'" said Lopez. "We need to fill these needs to get the economy going and make it more robust."

Just days after the bipartisan framework was announced, Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chris Koons, D-Del., introduced the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 (S. 169). That measure, known as the "I-Squared" Act, would boost the number of green cards available to immigrant workers in highly-skilled fields.

The bill "identifies many of the fixes that are necessary in the high-skilled area without creating new red tape and bureaucratic barriers to businesses who need these workers," said William A. Stock, a partner in the Philadelphia office of Klasko, Rulon, Stock & Seltzer and treasurer of AILA. "[It's] a crucial piece of the overall immigration reform effort."

Even without details, lawyers said they are excited at the drive to make immigration reform a reality.

"The conversation has changed from the realm of rhetoric into a real discussion," Lichter said.

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Published: Mon, Feb 18, 2013

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