Arizona business leaders say Trump's merit-based immigration plan falls short
Arizona business leaders are praising President Donald Trump's plan to create a merit-based immigration system that would give priority to immigrants with the highest skills.
But business leaders say Trump's plan falls short by ignoring the U.S. economy's need for workers at all levels of the spectrum, including lower-skilled workers needed to do jobs in areas such as hospitality, construction, and agriculture.
"We need more people here that are going to be required for employers in a variety of different sectors and skill ranges," said Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
In announcing his immigration plan on Thursday, Trump said the nation's legal immigration system is "totally dysfunction" because 66 percent of the 1.1 million green card visas given out each year are "randomly" issued to immigrants based on their family ties to relatives already living in the U.S.
Trump said currently only 12 percent of the 1.1 million green card visas given to legal immigrants are based on skill or merit.
Trump said he wants to maintain the overall number of green card visas handed out each year at 1.1 million.
But rather than give the majority of visas to immigrants based on family ties, Trump said his goal is to increase the share of employment-based visas from the current 12 percent to 57 percent.
"This will bring us in line with other countries" such as Canada and Australia "and make us globally competitive," Trump said.
Trump has said his plan, which calls for a merit-based immigration system coupled with enhanced border security, is designed to end illegal immigration.
"Moving towards a more work-force demand based system is something that is attractive," Hamer said.
But Hamer said ignoring the U.S. economy's demand for lower-skilled workers would lead to more illegal immigration as some employers continued to turn to undocumented workers to fill labor needs.
Hamer also faulted Trump for not addressing young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as Dreamers.
The chamber supports legislation that would allow Dreamers to remain in the U.S. permanently.
"Any sort of plan has to include an ability for all of the Dreamers to have the security that they are going to be permanently in the U.S," he said.
Trump has tried to end an Obama-era program that allows Dreamers to apply for temporary protection from deportation and work permits while calling on Congress to pass legislation that would give them a chance to legalize their status.
But so far, Dreamer legalization has failed to pass Congress. Democrats objected to Trump's insistence that he would only sign Dreamer legislation that also included billions of dollars in border wall funding.
Hamer said he was disappointed that Trump's plan would maintain current legal immigration levels. He favors increasing the number of green card visas approved annually given the country's low unemployment rate, and decreasing birth rate.
The U.S. unemployment rate in April fell to 3.6 percent a new 50-year low, adding 263,000 jobs, according to the Labor Department. The number of job openings rose to 7.5 million in March, the Labor Department said.
The U.S. birthrate is also at the lowest level in 32 years, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Arizona's growing high-tech industry would likely benefit from Trump's merit-based immigration plan, said Steven Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council, a trade association representing the state's tech industry.
There are 8,000 tech companies in Arizona that together employ about 170,000 people with an average salary about $88,000, he said.
But many of those firms have struggled to find enough workers to fill jobs because of the tight labor market, hindering growth, he said.
The state's cyber-security industry, for instance, currently has 7,000 job openings, Zylstra said.
A merit-based immigration system would help tech companies fill some of those jobs by recruiting foreign-born workers, he said.
But he said he "was not particularly happy" that increasing the share of green cards to high-skilled workers under Trump's plan would come at the expensive of fewer family-based green card visas.
Trump wants to eliminate certain family-based green cards, known as chain migration. Under his plan, immigrants would only be able to bring in spouses and children, no longer parents and siblings.
"People who have immigrated to this country and have siblings or ... other relatives — it's potentially going to shut them out of this country," Zylstra said. "We are strong believers that immigration is what has made America what it is today."
Philip Bashaw, the CEO of the Arizona Farm Bureau, was disappointed that Trump's plan only focuses on bringing in more high-skilled foreign workers while ignoring the need to provide more visas for agriculture workers.
Agriculture is a $23.3 billion industry in Arizona, he said. Arizona farmers and ranchers have struggled with chronic labor shortages for years, he said.
"We support efforts to secure our border, but that has to be coupled with an agriculture worker visa program that addresses the needs of agriculture producers," he said."Labor is a huge issue for the agriculture industry in Arizona. We have a very difficult time finding people to work in the agricultural work force," including both seasonal and year-round workers.
As a result, there a lot of jobs that are going unfilled, he said.
"Some of our producers have gotten innovative in terms of how they've had to fill those labor needs," he said. "We are also seeing a greater interest in mechanization, but you can't mechanize everything and that type of technology takes time to develop."
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that favors reducing overall immigration, said it "makes sense" to replace the current immigration system based largely on so-called chain migration with a merit-based system.
But he said allowing more high-skilled foreign workers to come into the country could hurt middle-class Americans
"Why would we want to do that?" Krikorian said. "This really does point to the weakness in the argument for skilled immigration because unless you set the bar very high, you are going to end up with mass immigration to compete with middle-class people instead of mass immigration to compete with less-educated Americans. Well, neither one of those things is particularly good."