Why the Fight Over Work Visas Won't Doom the Immigration Bill

Fawn Johnson

Make no mistake. The immigration bill being crafted by the “Gang of Eight” senators will include foreign work visas despite warnings from both business and labor that their talks over the issue have broken down.

Here’s why. The AFL-CIO, for the first time in its history, has signed off on a work-visa program that would allow employers to bring foreign workers into the United States on a temporary basis. Those visas would come with an assurance that the worker would have access to a green card, possibly as soon as one year after coming into the country. But initially, they are temporary visas. 

“It would be a new kind of work-visa program. It would be dual intent,” said AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser. 

This is a big deal. Previously, the AFL-CIO opposed any kind of temporary-visa program. That intransigence caused a highly public split with the Service Employees International Union in 2007. SEIU was willing to embrace some form of temporary work visas for immigrant labor if the broader immigration bill also legalized the currently undocumented population.

Now labor is speaking with one voice. They want legalization for the undocumented population and are willing to allow new foreign workers to come to the country, provided the employers pay them at the same rates they would pay an American worker. The business community has indicated it can live with those parameters.

The breakdown in talks is about degrees rather than overall principles. How much should foreign workers be paid? How should that wage rate calculated, and who decides? 

The dispute between labor and business over work visas highlights the sensitivity of the effort to reshape an immigration system that doesn't work very well for anybody. Immigration reform is a top priority for President Obama and for Republicans in Congress, who are worried that without an overhaul, the Hispanic population will become permanent Democrats.

Obama, just back from a trip to the Middle East, put a spotlight on the issue at a naturalization ceremony for 28 legal immigrants, urging Congress to press ahead with reform. "The time has come for a comprehensive, sensible immigration reform," he said. "We are making progress, but we’ve got to finish the job."

The eight Senate negotiators are hoping to unveil a draft of their immigration bill when Congress returns from its break in early April. The Judiciary Committee then would spend several weeks debating it and voting on it, preparing it for the Senate floor — a debate also expected to take several weeks. If all goes according to plan, the legislation would receive a final Senate vote in June.

On the work-visa issue, the AFL-CIO says that Republicans last week walked away from a proposal that would have set the wage rate for foreign workers at the median of the wages for that particular job. (There is a lot more detail to the compromise, but that’s the nub of it.) The federation sees the Republicans’ rejection as a betrayal. “No one will really own up to it, but the Senate Republicans’ refusal says that unless you are bringing in workers under this new program at lower wages, they’re not cool with it.” Hauser said. 

Business groups, for their part, harbor suspicions that the AFL-CIO is not bargaining in good faith. They are only willing to negotiate with the unions because they know that labor needs them to sign off on something to win over Republicans. If they manage to get close to a deal, that also reduces the likelihood that labor will back “killer” amendments on the Senate floor.

It’s a testy relationship at best. “I question whether they are actually for a workable program,” said Tamar Jacoby, who runs the business group ImmigrationWorks USA. “Every time it looks like we’re getting closer to a workable program, they raise a new problem.”

Businesses are willing to pay appropriately for foreign labor, and they are willing to offer the jobs to U.S. workers first. What they want is to be able hire immigrants in mid-skill or low-skill sectors. Home health care, nursing-home care, landscaping, and hospitality services are among the jobs that are heavily populated with immigrants (many of them undocumented). These are also jobs that cannot be mechanized or moved to other locations. Yet those jobs are also the hardest to fill with immigrant workers because there aren’t visa programs for them, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out in a recent brief. 

Businesses also would prefer to avoid a lot of red tape, especially when they are trying to fill seasonal job openings. That sentiment was reflected in the immigration principles jointly released last month by the chamber and the AFL-CIO. “It is important that our laws permit businesses to hire foreign workers without having to go through a cumbersome and inefficient process,” the statement said. 

Business representatives are keenly aware that without changes to the current employer-visa programs, the whole deal could fall flat. In 1986, when Congress created an amnesty program for 3 million illegal immigrants, it did not follow through with a visa program for lower-skilled foreign workers. The result, nearly three decades later, is a population of 11 million illegal immigrants doing those jobs. 

“Whatever your politics are, this is not just a narrow thing for employers. This is the heart of reform,” Jacoby said. “This is the only way we’re going to prevent this whole darn thing from happening all over.” 

Labor gets that, too. “We will agree, the first time, to a program that allows you to bring people in, so long as you are willing to agree that you’re not going to lower wages of Americans,” the AFL-CIO’s Hauser says.

The only problem is that these lobbying groups need all the principal negotiators in the room to hash out how to do it. For that, they will probably have to wait until the Senate reconvenes in mid-April. Maybe the sun will be out by then.