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E-Verify and Visas: An Immigration Reform Watchlist for Small Employers

Mexican immigrants work on a housing development on May 3, 2013 in Denver, Colorado

Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

Mexican immigrants work on a housing development on May 3, 2013 in Denver, Colorado

Immigration reform is gaining ground. Last week the Senate passed a bill by a 68-32 vote that would create a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers, more visas for high- and low-skilled workers, and provisions to increase border security. House leadership has signaled that it won’t take up the Senate bill, preferring instead to deal with immigration reform in a series of piecemeal laws.

Meanwhile, there’s been plenty of effort to make immigration reform feel like a make-or-break issue for small employers. Left-leaning advocacy groups, including the American Sustainable Business Council and the Main Street Alliance, have published polls indicating that small companies see immigration reform as expanding both their hiring pools and their customer bases. On the other side of the aisle, the National Federation of Independent Business warned the Senate that new red tape created by the bill would hurt small businesses’ bottom lines.

The tech industry has campaigned long and hard for immigration reform, lobbying for the creation of more visas for high-skilled workers—though it’s worth distinguishing between immigrant entrepreneurs launching startups and the staffing objectives of large corporations, such as Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT).

Setting aside political talking points, how are small businesses likely to be affected by an immigration overhaul? The big picture is that “the Senate bill makes more visas available for employment-based immigration,” says Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell Law School. Beyond that, here are three issues that small business owners should keep an eye on:

E-Verify. Employers in some states and industries are already required to use the E-Verify system to check the immigration status of new employees. In the past, that’s led some employers to complain that the program prevented them from filling open positions. Others argue that the system is slow to keep up with name changes, which might prevent workers from showing up as legal residents if they’ve been married or divorced. If the Senate bill becomes law, “E-Verify is something that everyone’s going to have to get used to,” says Yale-Loehr. In fiscal year 2012, 91 percent of workers checked through E-Verify were U.S. citizens, according to a factsheet distributed by the White House.

Entrepreneur visas. The Senate bill passed last week would create two new types of visas: the temporary X visa, for entrepreneurs who don’t plan on staying in the U.S. permanently, and the EB-6 visa, which can lead to residency. In each case, visas are available to entrepreneurs who hit thresholds for investment capital raised, jobs created, and revenue earned. Seattle-based immigration lawyer Tahmina Watson has a handy chart describing the various thresholds set forth by the Senate.

H-1Bs. Speaking at his organization’s annual meeting last week, American Immigration Lawyers Association President Doug Stump said the Senate bill would make the H-1B hiring process more difficult for small businesses. The visas, which allow high-skilled workers to come to the U.S. on a temporary basis, are typically associated with large technology companies. According to a Brookings Institute paper published last July, nearly half of H-1B visa requests filed in 2010 and 2011 requested only one worker, and 94 percent requested fewer than 10 H-1Bs. The process “needs to be workable for employers of all sizes,” says Stump, at about the 36-minute mark in this video.

Clark is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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