Business owner voices concerns over immigration law hurdles

By Patricia Zapor
Via The-Tidings.com

Though she’s an immigrant
herself, Carmen Larsen took a long time to come around to the idea of
hiring immigrants for her own company.

But having turned that corner eight years ago, Larsen understands the
advantages and complications of hiring immigrants. She also has
developed strong feelings about the problems with the current
immigration system, as well as some clear ideas about how it ought to
be changed.

As a board member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Montgomery
County, Md., Larsen is among the nation’s business owners who are
encouraging Congress to adopt immigration legislation that addresses
more than just enforcement problems.

An enforcement-only bill passed in the House in December has been
broadly criticized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, its Hispanic
counterpart, immigrant advocacy groups, labor unions and religious
institutions, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those
organizations are lobbying for legislation that also would address
systemic problems with legal immigration and provide a way for illegal
immigrants currently in the country to regularize their status.

For Larsen, it was one person’s story that started to bring a whole range of immigration-related complications into perspective.

As the owner of AQUAS (Automated Quality Applications and Systems), a
small Internet technology and management consulting company in Chevy
Chase, Md., Larsen assumed that the costs and paperwork necessary to
hire skilled workers from outside the United States would be far more
trouble than it was worth.

“I used to say you had to be a permanent resident or a citizen,” she said. “It was just simpler.”

Born in Italy to Ecuadorean parents who were part of the diplomatic corps, Larsen came to the United States with them at age 16.

Having attended American schools abroad, she said, she never really thought of herself as anything but an American.

“I was an American long before I got here,” she said. She graduated
from Georgetown University in 1973 and became a U.S. citizen not long
after marrying an American when she was in her early 20s.

So, in running her business, Larsen didn’t feel any particular empathy
for people whose immigrant stories were dramatically different from her
own.

Then, a Russian who had been an unpaid intern for AQUAS asked Larsen to
sponsor his application for a visa that would allow him to return to
work there.

He had been an asset as an intern and Larsen was pleased at the
prospect of getting him back. He even offered to take care of the
paperwork himself and to delay his own salary to offset the extra
expense to the company of paying immigration processing fees, she said.

“As it turned out, I really didn’t have to do much,” she explained, and
the Russian man became a valued employee. Since then Larsen has
continued to hire immigrants for her staff of about 24.

She has learned a lot about what employers and immigrants go through to
meet the requirements for working legally in the United States. To
start with, paperwork and related fees to obtain an H1B visa, the
category for skilled workers, each cost her company between $3,600 and
$4,000, she said. Although few stay in the country long enough to
collect on Social Security, and they are ineligible for unemployment
compensation, employers must pay into both systems for H1B workers.

Larsen ticked off other problems:

—Employers of people with H1B visas are required to pay them at least
the rate set by the U.S. Labor Department, no matter what the
prevailing wage is for that job.

“That tends to be much higher than we would ever pay someone in the
current market,” Larsen said. Yet, when her company gets U.S.
government contracts, the maximum wage payable to workers fulfilling
those contracts also is set — at a rate lower than what the Labor
Department requires her to pay them.

“I get contracts from the federal government that would never pay the wages they require me to pay,” she said.

—The foreign-citizen spouses and children of workers with H1B visas
are allowed to join them in the United States, but they are not allowed
to hold jobs here. With a business based in one of the most costly
residential areas in the country, “we know that in this area a family
needs two incomes,” she said. So when an H1B employee brings a family,
“we have people living in substandard conditions because there is no
second income,” she added.

—Even getting a driver’s license for a legal immigrant is
complicated. Larsen learned that in Maryland, an H1B visa holder must
make an appointment with a particular office of the Motor Vehicle
Administration. A staff member of that office interviews the applicant
and reviews extra documents to make sure he or she is eligible to apply
for a license. Although the state has no role in enforcing immigration
laws, Larsen and her employee encountered an attitude of suspicion at
the Motor Vehicle Administration that the immigrant was trying to get
away with something illegal, she said.

“Are we encouraging people to come in without documents?” Larsen asked.
“I think we are.” She said she understands and accepts that there
should be extra requirements for immigrants to get permission to work.
But she believes some laws — such as the prohibition on spouses of
H1B visa holders getting jobs — serve little practical purpose and
only encourage people to do things illegally to survive.

“Business owners tend to want to do things the right way,” Larsen said.
“We don’t want to deal with undocumented workers. It’s bad for
business.”

But in the United States, she said, “the reality is we’ve set up a
system that encourages people to come in illegally” because doing
things the legal way is prohibitively difficult.

She told of being approached by a man who had obtained legal residency
under an amnesty program years ago. One condition of his visa requires
him to keep working. He had lost his job and needed an employer to
sponsor him in order to keep his visa. That sponsorship will cost the
new employer $5,000 in fees, a hefty price tag for a new, untested
employee.

In the meantime, to pay his bills, “he has to be one of those people working underground,” she said.

Larsen, who’s active in two Maryland Catholic parishes, said she was
only vaguely aware of the Justice for Immigrants awareness campaign
started last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Though
the principles she voices echo those of the church in some ways, she
said her perspectives about immigration have come largely from her
experience as a business owner and from watching the changes around her.

For instance, she worries about the effects of having a whole community
of people in an underground economy who avoid all contact with the
government.

“It makes them more vulnerable to crime if they’re not going to be
forthcoming with the police for fear of being deported,” she said. “So
much is at stake.”

—CNS

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