Vice President of Education and Labor Advocacy, Government Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
July 27, 2023
Each month Women Taking the Lead highlights a female leader within the U.S. Chamber membership to showcase how women are currently leading in all areas of the business community. This month to spotlight our focus on immigration reform, we had a conversation with Barbara Leen, Senior Corporate Counsel, U.S. Immigration at Microsoft.
Q: Tell me about Microsoft and your role within the company.
A: Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. At Microsoft, I am part of a dynamic Corporate, External, and Legal Affairs group that operates on the forefront of global business and regulatory issues around the world.
In my role as Senior Corporate Counsel, I have the privilege of supporting Microsoft’s visa dependent employees in their U.S. immigration journey. In addition to my direct legal work, I also work with business coalitions and our U.S. government affairs team to advocate for immigration policy solutions to improve the complex immigration system.
Q: Microsoft has long been a proponent of modernizing the U.S. legal immigration system. Can you share more about how the current system is inadequate, contributes to worker shortages, and ultimately hinders business operations?
A: At Microsoft, we have a longstanding history of sponsoring highly skilled immigrants for work visas and green cards to complement our U.S. workforce. We support reforms that improve the nation’s ability to attract the world’s best talent, while also expanding opportunities for U.S. workers. The United States’ renown as a magnet for global talent is not something to be taken lightly, or for granted. Highly skilled immigrants are an essential part of our country’s innovative capacity, competitive advantage, and economic strength. Nevertheless, continued efforts to decrease access to immigration benefits threaten the country’s ability to attract and retain global talent.
For example, the United States has strict caps on the number of green cards that may be allotted each year. Those caps have not been updated in more than 30 years. Despite the U.S. economy’s ongoing technological revolution, only 140,000 employment-based green cards are allotted annually and only 7% of those can go to immigrants from any one country of origin. With only 9,800 green cards available for each country annually, countries like China and India face green card backlogs spanning decades. The uncertainty inherent to this process serves as a strong deterrent for sought after talent who would otherwise pursue careers in the United States. Moreover, the green card backlog exerts a tremendous emotional toll on families who have held temporary immigration authorizations for years while awaiting their green card, despite having satisfied required sponsorships and governmental approvals of qualifications.
The United States also risks losing hundreds of thousands of DREAMers- undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. Most DREAMers regard the United States as their home and contribute tremendously to their communities and the U.S. economy. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the temporary measure allowing DREAMers to remain in the United States and work, is in jeopardy, and a permanent solution allowing for a path to citizenship is needed.
Q: Recognizing these challenges, what needs to change within the U.S. legal immigration system and what is your role with the efforts?
A: The United States needs comprehensive immigration reform addressing all aspects of the system, including border security and the needs of vulnerable immigrants. My work is mostly focused on workforce issues and making sure the United States’ immigration system supports our growing economy and benefits our society.
I feel lucky to be in a position where I can provide advice and support to Microsoft’s visa dependent employees on an individual basis, while also collaborating with teams at the cutting edge of technology to meet their workforce needs.
My position and background give me the opportunity to see how systematic trends and issues within the U.S. immigration system impacts business and the lives employees and their families. This first-hand insight allows me to be a more effective advocate for progress and change within the immigration policy space. When I am advocating for policy change, it’s because I have worked directly with someone who has suffered under the existing status quo or because I’ve seen first-hand a new, technological solution to a long-standing problem that needs development by specialized, highly trained people. In a sense, I view my role at Microsoft as that of a translator. Employees come to me with their individual, case specific problems. My responsibility is then not just to address the individual matter at hand, but also to identify whether it fits into any larger patterns raised to me by employees. Prior to joining Microsoft, I had a career in public service focusing on the immigration system. Through the individual advice part of my role and my knowledge of government processes, I can dig into the exactly how and why a U.S. immigration system, process, or policy is failing business and people and propose affirmative, practical changes to improve the system.
Q: In addition to your “everyday” work, you are also active in Microsoft’s pro bono program. Can you tell me more about the program and the work you’re doing with the Afghan Asylum Initiative?
A: One of the things I love about working at Microsoft is that providing pro bono assistance is part of our “every day” work. We have an excellent Pro Bono Program that guides us in finding the right pro bono opportunities and partners with us to develop new opportunities, such as the Afghan Asylum Initiative. The Afghan Asylum Initiative started after I, like many other Americans, watched the U.S. miliary withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and wondered what I could do to help. I partnered with the global immigration firm Fragomen and an international organization, whose employees and their families were at risk, to recruit and train Microsoft attorneys and business professionals to help those families with their asylum cases. The program’s success is owed to the generosity of so many of my colleagues in Microsoft’s legal department who donate their time and energy to helping those in need.
Q: How would you recommend others get started on immigration issues—are there particular resources that you found helpful?
A: There are so many opportunities for getting started on immigration issues. The most helpful resource of all for understanding the immigration system and its impact is the immigrant community itself. If you personally know an immigrant, I recommend asking about their journey. I suspect most people would be surprised by the oversized role of luck and personal tenacity within our immigration system.
Another wonderful place to learn about immigration is from local groups in your area that work on immigration issues. These organizations often bring together immigrants, business groups, and government leaders to address the local components of a national problem. These connections can supply invaluable context and understanding of a complex economic and policy problem.
Q: How important is it to have a mentor to grow as a leader? How does mentorship change later in your career?
A: Informal mentorship is an important, yet often overlooked, avenue for helping other women to grow within an organization. Sometimes the idea of formal mentorship can seem intimidating or overwhelming. Informal mentorship—such as a conversation with someone who looks like they are having a tough day—can have a substantial impact on how someone views a career situation. Informal conversations can be a way to provide contemporaneous, direct, and actionable feedback that can help colleagues succeed.
Q: How can women support other women in their organizations?
A: Women in more senior roles can identify opportunities that help junior colleagues capitalize on their strengths, putting them in a position to succeed. Highlighting the success of women colleagues—whether it is a brilliant idea in a meeting or the outcome of a large project—can bring attention to work that might go unnoticed or undervalued.
Q: What’s the most significant behavior that you have seen derail female leaders’ careers?
A: The most significant behavior I have seen derail female leaders’ careers is when they think they need to ask permission to be a leader. Leadership is more than reaching a specific level or title in an organization. There are opportunities to be a leader at every level of every organization – even if that leadership is informal in nature.
Q: What’s something – work related or not – that you learned this past month?
A: I am very, very allergic to poison ivy.
Q: Do you listen to podcasts? If so, is there one or two – work/leadership-related or not – you would recommend?
A: One podcast that I love is On Being with Krista Tippet. I’ve been listening to this podcast for years, through many stages of my life. The lessons I’ve learned have stayed with me and grounded me when I’ve needed perspective. Krista Tippet is masterful at guiding open and honest conversations on topics about which we often have many differences – a skill that every leader should seek to emulate.
Q: Do you have a favorite women-owned business/entrepreneur? If so, what business is it and why?
A: My favorite woman entrepreneur is Julia Contacessi. Julia and I have been friends since we met at age 14. She has always been committed to her art, but what I admire most is her commitment to her business. In addition to producing original works of art, she runs a complex business based upon her intellectual property. It has been inspiring to watch her business model grow – from licensing, copyright protection, partnering with other businesses to produce affordable original art, to original commissioned pieces of art. The way she combines her artistic expression with an intrepid nature and a keen business sense continues to amaze me.
About the authors
Allison L. Dembeck is vice president of education and labor advocacy in the Government Affairs Division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, focusing on education, labor, and workforce development issues.