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Mass. business coalition embarks on pro-immigration agenda

With immigration front and center in Washington, Eva Millona needs all the allies she can get.

Forget about the wall. Millona is more interested in building bridges. The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition’s executive director is leading a fast-growing network of businesses that want to foster more inclusive immigration policies on the federal and state levels.

Members of the Massachusetts Business Immigration Coalition, a MIRA project that is still in its infancy, met Monday to hash out a policy agenda for the next two years.

The frenzy around H-1B visas, not surprisingly, tops the list of priorities. Companies use them to employ foreigners with specialized skills and training; a preference is given for those with graduate degrees from US universities. The number of applications last year dropped slightly from the prior year, but demand was still fierce, with nearly three times as many applicants as there were available slots.

They’re doled out by lottery. But the Trump administration’s “Buy American and Hire American” executive order in 2017 made them much harder to get, even with a lottery win. The federal agency in charge, Citizenship and Immigration Services, significantly increased its postlottery requests for more paperwork and denials. The processing time has dragged on.

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Critics say the H-1B process enables companies to shift jobs to lower-paid foreigners, often from India. But supporters point to the low jobless rate here and in many other parts of the country as evidence that there just isn’t enough talent to go around.

Scott FitzGerald, a Boston partner with immigration law firm Fragomen, points to federal protections to ensure H-1B workers aren’t underpaid.

He adds that at least those visa holders are working here and contributing to the local economy. Blocking their use, he says, may contribute to more offshoring of jobs, if companies turn to overseas operations to get the work done.

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Another major federal issue deals with a different kind of worker, those here through the Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programs. Millona’s group estimates roughly 12,000 people in the state, primarily from Haiti and El Salvador, could be sent away as they lose TPS protections; efforts to end those protections remain subject to a federal court challenge. Separately, the fate of another 6,000 people in the state who are here through the DACA program remains unclear.

These workers fill valuable roles in a number of lower-paid jobs, ranging from construction to health care to hospitality.

There are also ways the business coalition wants to influence debate at the state level. For example, the group is throwing its support behind a bill known as the “Safe Communities Act” that would block local and state police officers from performing the functions of immigration officers. One motivation: making immigrants feel more comfortable with law enforcement.

Millona started the business coalition last fall, with $20,000 in seed funds from the United Way of Massachusetts Bay.

So far, nearly 50 businesses have joined, collectively kicking in $26,000-plus, primarily to pay for a consultant to coordinate the effort. Most of the early members are on the smaller side, but they represent a diverse cross-section of industries. Needham’s TripAdvisor is among the biggest employers in the mix; a spokesman says TripAdvisor joined to ensure local companies have access to a global talent pool.

Millona remains on pace to achieve her aggressive goal of having 200 businesses on board by the end of the year.

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She’s trying to do her part to make the case — on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill — for immigration’s impact on the economy. From her perspective, the louder the voice, the better.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.