A panel of industry experts says issues with the U.S. immigration system exacerbate existing labor shortages in Wisconsin.

During a virtual event held yesterday by WisPolitics.com, WisBusiness.com and the Wisconsin Technology Council, panelists also offered some solutions that could improve the state’s workforce outlook.

Ankit Agarwal, president and CEO of Imbed Biosciences in Madison, discussed the difficulties he’s had with hiring new graduates of Wisconsin universities that hail from other countries. Because the number of H1B employment-based work visas is capped at 65,000 per year, he said most of the 200,000 annual applicants are unable to stay and work in the United States after graduation.

“On one hand we talk about growth in businesses, growth in startups, hiring more highly educated workforce — but on the other hand, this 65,000 number has been around for the last 20 years,” he said. “How can we grow workforce and grow the education system … but not increase the H1B visas which is the only way for them to become part of the American workforce?”

Kelly Fortier, an immigration attorney with the law firm Michael Best & Friedrich, agreed with Agarwal that the cap for H1B visas should be expanded, calling it “a really easy solution” to address shortages in industries that require highly skilled workers. She noted the cap was temporarily increased to over 200,000 during the “dot-com boom” of the late 1990s, but was then reduced back to its current level.

Earlier this year, President Biden proposed the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which Fortier explained is focused on expanding green cards and enabling long-term employment for immigrant workers. If passed, provisions of the law would increase the number of green cards available, which would likely decrease wait times. But she said the proposed bill wouldn’t have much of an impact on temporary work visa categories.

“Expanding, for example, a temporary dairy visa, which we’d love to see — it doesn’t have anything like that,” she said.

The legislation was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate in February by Democratic lawmakers, and Republicans have voiced opposition to the bill. The White House has said it’s willing to split the bill into separate parts to get high-priority sections passed sooner.

While this and other immigration bills are pending at the federal level, panelists also touched on some state-level approaches including a state-based visa program proposed several times in Wisconsin. But Fortier noted these attempts “didn’t get a lot of traction” in recent years.

Jay Heeg, of Heeg Brothers Dairy in Colby, outlined the difficulties that he and other dairy producers have faced in hiring enough workers to keep their operations running. Many farms in the state rely on migrant workers, and Heeg said his farm struggled at times last year to find enough workers with the needed skills. He expressed support for granting undocumented workers some form of identification such as driver’s licenses as a “starting point” for improving the current situation.

Still, Fortier said the current system is “so incredibly complicated” that it can take more than 300 pages of paperwork for just one green card. She said the dairy industry in particular has been grappling with work visa issues for decades, with no easy solution in sight.

“At the end of the day, there are just certain industries I just can’t help,” she said. “I work a lot with dairy, but I don’t charge dairy anything, because there’s nothing to be done for dairy right now. It’s just an unfortunate problem.”

Reid Ribble, a former Republican member of Congress from northeastern Wisconsin and CEO for the National Roofing Contractors Association, criticized the U.S. immigration system as “nonsensical.” He pointed to workers who’ve been in the country for over 20 years under “temporary protected status” as evidence that the system doesn’t work in its current form.

“Why hasn’t this problem been solved?” Ribble said. “The reason the problem has not been solved is because there’s a political advantage to each political party to not solve it.”

He noted some left-leaning labor groups such as large unions have been opposed to attempts at expanding immigration. Meanwhile, immigration expansion opposition on the right has focused on concerns around suppressing wages, among other factors, he said. He called that concern “a myth,” noting wages have historically risen following waves of legal immigration.

As declining U.S. birth rates fail to keep up with workforce demand, Ribble wants federal lawmakers to put aside their disagreements and enact legislation to increase the number of available immigrant workers.

“Congress needs to address this, if for no other reason than to put the demagoguery aside, so we can get away from whatever racist elements are there, or racial elements are there,” he said. “But they also need to put it aside because demographically we’re headlong into a crisis … birth rates have been declining in this country for 20 years; we’re now below replacement level.”

Wisconsin Technology Council President Tom Still, who moderated the discussion, emphasized the consistent need for skilled laborers in agriculture and roofing, as well as the state’s growing tech sector and startup ecosystem.

He highlighted the “brokenness” of the current system, noting many entrepreneurs and other skilled workers are forced to leave the United States for their home countries after college, creating more competition for U.S industries rather than joining them.

“It disadvantages those who are in the startup world,” Still said.

Along with difficulties in hiring talented immigrant graduates, Agarwal detailed his own struggle to get a green card as a skilled scientist in the biotechnology field. He said he had to prove his worth as a scientist with “international standing,” and was only able to do so thanks to the efforts of various mentors and academics that wrote letters of recommendation for him.

“I think in hindsight that it shouldn’t have been that difficult for a scientist — very well-trained, very highly educated,” he said, adding that many other immigrant scientists at research institutions in Wisconsin face the same challenge. “It shouldn’t be that difficult for them to stick around and start a company or work for a company.”

Watch a video of the discussion here: http://www.wisbusiness.com/trade-policy/

–By Alex Moe