The immigration system in the United States is complex, to say the least. Visa categories for nearly every letter of the alphabet, exemptions, restrictions, rule changes with every new federal administration. We need more workers, innovators and entrepreneurs in an increasingly competitive world and amid an historic worker shortage and cash-strapped social safety systems due to a greying workforce. Does the United States’ immigration system work in its favor? For Erick Widman, immigration lawyer and founder of Passage Immigration Law in Portland, Oregon, it does not.
One of my main messages to those who are more skeptical of the value of immigration is that if we’re in favor of a free market, if we’re in favor of the best can achieve and succeed, we should be in favor of labor mobility so that we can allow the best people from around the world to come in and compete and get those jobs as we need them because our companies will certainly benefit.
Erick Widman grew up in northern California and now lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and three kids. He attended UCLA and the University of California, Davis for law school. Prior to starting his own law practice in 2007, Erick was in-house counsel at Philips corporation in California for over three years where he handled various international and immigration legal issues. He spent a year teaching international law at the Budapest College of Economics and interned with a Superior Court judge. Erick has practiced law since 2004 and is a member of both the Oregon and California state bars. Because immigration law is a federal practice area, Erick is able to serve clients in any state in the U.S. and around the world. He is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).
Read episode transcript here.
Please excuse typos.
Denzil Mohammed: Welcome back to JobMakers. The immigration system in the United states is complex, to say the least. Visa categories for nearly every letter of the alphabet, exemptions, restrictions, rule changes with every new administration. We need more workers, innovators, and entrepreneurs in an increasingly competitive world and amid an historic worker shortage and cash strapped social safety systems due to a graying workforce. So does the United States’ immigration system work in its favor or not? Erick Widman, immigration lawyer and founder of Passage Immigration Law in Portland, OR says it does not.
We routinely turn away ambitious, risk-taking people at all skill levels high and low, which the country needs, from vaccine creators to crop pickers. The US throughout its history has depended on the sweat and brainpower of immigrants who largely go on to become the next crop of Americans. Erick guides us through the immigration process for agricultural workers, international students, high school workers, and people with extraordinary ability. He shows us the myriad ways Americans benefit from their work and he shows us where we fall short, shooting ourselves in the foot because of a hijacked immigration discussion, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers podcast.
Erick Widman, founding attorney at Passage Immigration Law in Portland, OR thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.
Erick Widman: Thank you so much, it’s real privilege to be here.
Denzil Mohammed: To be clear you’re not an immigrant, but you have a lot of experience with immigration both in and outside of the US, is that right?
Erick Widman: Yes my grandpa Sven came from Sweden, but I was born in the U.S. and we’ll discuss it later I’m sure how I immigrated to Hungary.
Denzil Mohammed: So who exactly is Erick Widman?
Erick Widman: Yes, so I’m from California I’m an immigration lawyer who grew up in a really diverse environment in Cupertino, CA. In my high school Caucasians were the minority, we had lots of lots of Asians there, so there’s a lot of diversity that I experienced growing up and I got to spend a summer, really formative experience, in Japan living there as a junior hire and that led me to study international relations focus on international business law in law school and then I taught in Hungary after that and met a Hungarian woman who is now my wife and we have three dual-citizen kids.
Denzil Mohammed: That’s terrific. So, as I mentioned, you have tremendous experience with immigration both here and abroad. As someone who’s gone through the immigration process both as an immigration treaty and with your wife in Hungary, tell us a little bit about the immigration process and how is it different.
Erick Widman: Yes, so the U.S. system is known as an incredibly complex set of rules and changing priorities and it’s similar to the U.S. tax code in that it keeps expanding in complexity. No one ever reduces complexity, it’s just more and more tricky and it’s very politicized. So there are policies that seem to bounce back from one direction to the other depending on which administration is in power and so the timeline is quite long for immigrants in general. Even before COVID for immigrants to go through the process in the U.S. and comparing ourselves to Canada or most European countries, they’re more efficient and they can get people permanent residents work permits faster. So that’s why it’s really a real competitive issue for the U.S.
Denzil Mohammed: You bring up the tax system. You know Byzantine is one way to describe the immigration process here. You have visas from A-Z with, you know, numbers and everything in between. It’s so much to digest. In terms of speed right with these other countries it’s targeting who they want.
Erick Widman: Right yes yes the U.S. has a quota system which in many ways is unfair and certain nationalities have a very long wait time. So Indians, Mexicans, those from the Philippines, Chinese, have a really long wait time to get green cards because there’s a cap on how many from each nation can be allowed into the U.S. So that definitely impacts the nationality type of immigrant we have and so it’s not just a long wait. It’s an insurmountably long wait. For those who have one of those nationalities that’s got a massive backlog and it doesn’t work in their favor, the immigrants’ favor, and it just doesn’t work in America’s favor either. And I want to point out specifically the crisis that we’re facing right now, and I really want to get your comments on it.
The U.S. is facing historic woes in terms of the currently restorage they’re more than 10 million job openings and only 5.7 million unemployed people to fill them now with the start of the pandemic necessarily perhaps the department of states cancelled all visa services at embassies across the world but even when they started to reopen later that summer processing was so slow and sluggish that the U.S. missed out on 2 million working age immigrants who would have come here with certain skill sets with educational backgrounds, and would have eased the liberator experiencing right now.
So, again, two things stand out about this. Firstly that we could have had two million more immigrants who could have significantly eased this worker shortage and the little known fact that one visa category did in fact keep going throughout the suspension of all other categories the H2A visa for temporary agricultural workers. They kept us fed they kept picking the fruits they kept all grocery supplied tell us a little bit about the importance of low skilled workers.
Denzil Mohammed: And why do you think they kept that one visa category going?
Erick Widman: Hopefully Congress listened to our farmers. The agricultural companies that produce our food and we would have been in big trouble as a nation especially under COVID we still would be in big trouble if we didn’t have this flow of H2A workers or immigrant non-immigrant workers who come in for a season in a temporary period of time and do the really tough work that we drive by most people who are not in the agricultural industry we can see them working the fields they’re bent over incredibly difficult work that some people even die in the really hot conditions out there so these jobs are tough. They’re not desirable and part of the American dream is that people don’t want to do these jobs long term. The immigrant comes in because here she’s willing at that skill level to do that really tough work and then they’re thinking about their family and their kids they think, well, my kids will be able to get an education to do more but it is a true win win-win. We have our agricultural needs met and people who live in essentially absolute poverty throughout the South of the border and various countries are happy to do this tough work. They can save up money and buy a house and support their grandparents with this money.
Denzil Mohammed: So you started to describe this this kind of worker and you’ve done some immigration work in this field as well so could you sort of describe more about who these agricultural workers are how they end up in the U.S. how they’re recruited. What are some of the characteristics?
Erick Widman: So the H2A agricultural worker is someone who has experience. They go through a recruiter. Recruitment agencies, individual recruiters, they work directly with farms to bring in these folks who are really a stellar group of people they are searching for any opportunity they can get. But by and large, wonderful family people and the recruiters are choosing those who don’t have a criminal record. Those who are great hardworking people with a track record of being really diligent so we need those workers who can pick the fruits that we eat but of course as you know and I know we also need workers and innovators who can perform feats of science and keep the U.S. at the cutting edge of technology innovation don’t be.
Yes and the businesses that are competing globally and are really tough environment Intel for example is here in almost like a life or death struggle against other companies trying to create the best possible microprocessors and the founder of Intel said you always have to be paranoid. Only the paranoid survive, and interestingly, he was an immigrant from Hungary. So I’ve got the Hungarian connection there. But Andy Grove, the founder or cofounder of Intel was a Hungarian immigrant so the paranoid survive
It’s a brutal capitalistic clash of companies and we need people who are amazing at math science STEM fields. And right now we’re not graduating enough native born Americans with these intense PhD programs computer science chemistry physics when I worked at Philips electronics I was asking some of the LED lighting PHD’s is what you do more physics or chemistry and they love describing the details but it’s both at the at the microprocessor level ,they’re getting into just like things I don’t understand, nano meters of complexity, so we need super smart people to do this and we’re not graduating enough. And so the companies are hungry for them and they’re typically from countries all over the world that are traditionally strong as science Chinese Taiwanese many Europeans there’s a big need for this.
I like the example you just you just rolled up because one thing that’s often brought up on this podcast is the need for diversity of thought diversity of backgrounds in order to come up with a finished product and you talk about Intel and cofounders I would bring up a Pfizer and Moderna in the U.S. right here in Boston actually where foreign-born and U.S. born people co-founded these companies and together they come up with the most brilliant things like the COVID-19 vaccine similarly in Germany it was German and immigrant inventors who came up with the was it the biotech vaccine over there so there is truly magic that can be created by having this diversity of thought we need more people.
Frankly and the data bears this out without immigrants without international students stem programs across the country would be suffering and probably have to close and to our credit the university system is attracting them we want to attract them we want to be known as the best university system we want to be known to be the best environment to really grow your career and so I love stories exactly like the development of the COVID vaccine where you have the best and brightest from each country participating to provide the best product that’s what our sports teams do you encourage labor mobility.
The best people who can perform and that’s inherently capitalistic, right, just an economy that attracts the best and the brightest in order to succeed.
I think one of my main messages to those who are more skeptical of the value of immigration is that if we’re in favor of a free market if we’re in favor of the best can achieve and succeed we should be in favor of Labor mobility so that we can allow the best people from around the world to come in and compete and get those jobs as we need them because our companies will certainly benefit.
Denzil Mohammed: You talk about labor mobility what is our current system to allow the best and the brightest or those who want to come and study or work here and what are some of the shortcomings the pathway to come to the U.S. as a student knowing you’re going to get a great education in any state in in the union even if you don’t have a Ivy League brand name you many people from all over the world is still pretty just to go to a small town school because it’s an American school so we have to maintain that prestige and after that they often do this what’s called OPT optional practical training and they can work in their degree field for a year either pre completion OPT post completion and they work for a company for a year then if that company is impressed which they often are they file for an each 1B petition for H1B professional worker visa to give that immigrant a chance to work for them right now unfortunately there’s only a 30% chance that they’ll be selected in the lottery so it’s more likely than not that because of the the cap because of the limited number of H1B visas and the increase in demand that exceeds that so then they have to look at other options and many keep going to college and get a higher degree there’s also an extraordinary ability visa which is an increasingly positive option for and something that we’ve had to rely upon when people can’t get an H1B. For example but it’s hard to be extraordinary in your career when you have all this potential but you’re only 23 what can you accomplish at that point so sometimes we can connect the dots for USCIS and show them that they are extraordinary even with just a couple of years under their belt of work experience. And just to be clear when you talk about the H1B high skilled worker visa there is a cap there’s a certain number that that that are issued and because there are so many applications they actually have a actually have to have a lottery system in order to choose and meet that cap so thousands upon thousands of other people high skilled immigrants are deliberately they’re just tossed away they left out there’s an element of luck and this seems very un-American that doesn’t seem like we’re choosing the best and allowing the best to work for us we want to give more opportunities to these people is a is a free market that’s what we should support more but it’s not a free market for the immigrant and it’s not advantageous to us if we are deliberately telling people no you have to go back normal room and you mentioned the extraordinary ability visa tell us a little bit more about this O visa and the kinds of people who they qualify and some of the things that they accomplish in the U.S.
And everyone would love to be called extraordinary and so it’s there’s a high bar most of us unfortunately cannot be cost truly classified as extraordinary but with yeah it’s we all should aim for it that’s for sure but the challenge is to show why this particular applicant truly is at the top of his or her field a Taekwondo expert from Hungary so that was someone else we helped he was world champion he was happy to teach Oregonian kids and build his business and help his employer with that we’ve also had a O1 approved for an amazing Chinese artist for example he was rather young recent graduate from school, but a world class painter.
And so we were able to show please give this person a visa he is he is going to make an amazing contribution his employer wants him and please grant this pathway to this amazing extraordinary individual and indeed these incredible people the best and the brightest come to this country and keep it innovative and entrepreneurial and I really admire the diversity of people you’ve described from Taekwondo or champions to artists
I mean that’s pretty incredible but research from our own partners at the institute from migration research at George Mason University shows that even up to 1/3 of our Nobel Prize winners are immigrants is that incredible that statistic stuns me and it’s remarkable to hear it and it’s a beautiful thing too to look at the way for example historically we welcomed Albert Einstein we’ve welcomed all these individuals who went on to do amazing things for our country and the entire world so I’m always moved by statistics like that because we enable the greatest people that people who are amazing at their fields to achieve to their full potential and that is what makes the US the land of opportunity is where we give people a platform to really thrive and get access to resources and government funding for in some cases.
Denzil Muhammed: So it’s not just industries that are attracting people it’s our higher education system people who come here and do postdocs and they collapse importantly they collaborate with U.S. born researchers at these universities and they come up with the most incredible inventions and theories and they win the Nobel Prize for it but it’s America who gets the credit and rightfully so because we are the ones attracting these bright people. Right so before I get to my last question just comment on what we’ve spoken about so far: about the need for high skilled and low skilled immigrants on the inherently entrepreneurial nature of immigrants just sort of comment on that for a little bit before we close.
Erick Widman: Yes the need for immigrant labor is strong on both the higher end of the spectrum lower end in in the middle and listen to these thought leaders like Elon Musk like many who have credibility would – I know he’s a controversial figure these days – but who understand groundbreaking big thinkers and they see that if as a population continues to age we’re going to need people to take care of them we’re not going to have the tax base Social Security is in big trouble we’re not having enough kids to fund all of the money we’re gonna have to pay for our healthcare system so one of the few pathways open to us is more immigrant labor and historically we have done a great job of welcoming people from all over the world and incorporating them into our our society and their kids go on to be amazing contributors on their own and they are 100% American and it’s it speaks to what or who is an American it’s not defined by how you look how you speak what you wear it’s something much more intrinsic about being an American and that is something multitudes of people can share and that’s what American Society has is and has always been yeah and I encourage people to look at the oath of allegiance when people are becoming citizens and people are proudly saying yes I’m willing to support the U.S. constitution.
And I think fundamentally that is what unites us is our core commitment to one another through these founding principles of liberty democracy fair opportunity the rule of law those things are what unite us and it’s too bad we’ve been sidetracked by more peripheral things these days but the core of what unites new Americans and native born Americans it’s still there.
Denzil Muhammed: This was a really good conversation. Erick Widman’s immigration attorney founding attorney at passage immigration law in Portland Morgan thank you for joining us on the job makers podcast to talk about immigrant workers immigrant entrepreneurs immigrant innovators and immigrants in general.
Erick Widman: Thank you so much.
Denzil Muhammed: Denzel it was a real pleasure job makers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by pioneer institute a think tank in Boston and the immigrant Learning Center in Malden MA a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice thank you for joining us for this week’s discussion and how our immigration system falls short when we need it most and the glimpse into what we should do about it if you don’t want outstanding immigrant business owner or innovator we should talk to e-mail Denzel that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L@jobmakerspodcast.org. I’m Denzel Mohammed see you next Thursday at noon for another job makers.
Denzil Mohammed is the host of JobMakers, a weekly podcast brought to you by Pioneer Institute and The Immigrant Learning Center. Denzil is the Director of The Immigrant Learning Center’s Public Education Institute, where he focuses on specialized online education, research, teacher resources, publications and events that educate Americans on the contributions of immigrants. He began his career in journalism in 2000 in his home country of Trinidad and Tobago, and previously worked for Swissnex Boston/Consulate of Switzerland. Denzil has an MS in Global Communications from Northeastern University and a BA in Communication Studies/Literatures in English from University of the West Indies. Contact him at email@example.com.