Photographer: Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images

U.K. Wants U.S.-Style Immigration System? It Will Look Like This

  • Limited public disclosure but foreign-staff lists do surface
  • Lack of visa options for lower skills has bred illegality

In the words of one minister, the U.K.’s early sketched immigration proposals for a post-Brexit Britain went down like a bag of vomit. The government has walked back the more controversial elements, but on one thing is clear.

“What we are going to consult on is whether we should bring ourselves in line with countries like the United States,” Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers. She stressed there would be “no naming and shaming, no published lists of foreign workers."

U.S. visas issued annually to foreigners reflect a growing use of foreign workers in some highly-skilled and lower-skilled seasonal jobs. For Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, this begs the question: “Is there going to be any kind of low-skilled worker program in order to mitigate the impact on some of the employers who have become quite dependent on EU citizens?”

With that in mind, here is a rundown of American immigration practices and what their adoption would mean for British businesses.

How many foreign workers can enter the U.S. annually?

Exact data are hard to come by given the number of federal agencies involved in vetting and approving visas. Data collected by Bloomberg shows the number of primary work visas may be as high as 350,000 for fiscal year 2014. In addition there are roughly 70,000 people with employment-based green cards. With 158 million American workers, that comes to less than 1 percent of the U.S. labor force.

Here are the four primary work visas and how they could apply to the U.K.

  • The H-1B, for workers with at least a bachelor’s degree, is capped at 65,000 per year. Exemptions include hires by U.S. non-profits and universities. This year, there were 236,000 applications. This visa would apply to the kind of professionals typically hired in the City of London, with high-paying office jobs.

  • The H-2A, for seasonal agricultural work, has no quota. In Britain, this would help replenish the agricultural workforce, reliant on cheaper eastern European labor.
  • The H-2B, for seasonal non-agricultural work is capped at 66,000. Think ski resort workers or landscapers. Hotels, bars and restaurants, especially in London, also face a challenge to replace the year-around unskilled labor that EU countries supply.
  • The L-1 visa, mainly for managerial-level and highly specialized transfers within companies. A variant of this might work for companies with headquarters in London to bring over top talent with less red tape.

What do U.S. employers need to do to hire a foreign worker?

Unlike H-1B employers, employers of seasonal workers must provide documentation proving they recruited local people through newspaper advertisements and job centers. According to several immigration lawyers, seasonal employers typically pay at least a fraud fee of $500, plus recruiting costs. H-1B employers can pay around $2,500 in filing fees, including $1,500 that goes to educating and retraining U.S. workers, plus a $4,000 surcharge introduced last year.

What does this mean for Britain? The U.S. may not provide much guidance in creating a stronger labor-market test, which the H-1B doesn’t require but the U.K. Tier 2 skilled work visa does. Employers, for instance, must advertise openings locally for 28 days. 

It’s difficult to know whether any of this makes a difference or whether employers are just going through the motions, according to Sumption.

Are employers dependent on foreign workers treated differently?

The U.S. government holds these businesses to a different standard. Employers seeking to bring over professionals from overseas face additional reporting requirements when at least 15 percent of their employees are H-1B visa holders, with a higher threshold for smaller firms. They must attest that no U.S. workers will be displaced and that they’re recruiting and hiring qualified U.S. applicants. 

While the U.S. doesn’t as a matter of policy name the H-1B dependent employers, a Howard University associate professor recently compiled a 2015 list of biggest H1-B employers, showing heavy usage of the program by India-based IT outsourcing firms.

Those who break the rules may face severe consequences.

“For many years, [the government] focused on the economic incentive,” including getting back-pay for workers, says William Stock, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “The past four years, they’ve really focused on a provision that’s kind of the death penalty,” where violators can be barred for up to two years.

But to be clear, the U.S. does not keep a handy record of employers that depend on foreign workers, so anything along those lines in the U.K. would diverge from U.S. practice.

What are frequent criticisms of the U.S. system?

Caps for the H-1B and employment-based green cards are criticized by business, especially Silicon Valley, as being too low, with some visa applicants from countries such as India and China having to wait at least a decade for a green card, according to Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy and former policy chief of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

On the lower-skilled end, the seasonal nature of visas is a problem. 

“A waiter, a maid, those kinds of people generally wouldn’t be able to use [the H-2B visa] or an employer couldn’t use it to hire them unless a job can be shown to be seasonal,” Anderson said. “And that’s led to the problem of illegal immigration, because many of the people who are here illegally are looking to work full-time, and those are the kinds of visas that just don’t exist.”

Having a category for full-year jobs that don’t require a college degree is key, he says, referring to a character all too familiar in U.K. politics: The Polish plumber.

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