Did we just witness a shift on immigration policy from Hillary Clinton?
On Monday, Vox.com published an in-depth interview with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. A wide range of topics were discussed, but of particular interest were Sec. Clinton’s positions on immigration—some of which were, I believe, either new or expressed publicly for the first time—regarding the impact of immigration on the labor market and the major flaws inherent in America’s temporary foreign worker programs.
I was encouraged by the fact that Clinton’s comments on immigration got right to the heart of how the immigration system is used by businesses and corporations to keep migrant workers exploitable and underpaid, which in turn degrades labor standards for U.S. workers who are similarly situated. Clinton rightly pointed out how immigration is good for the American economy, but took what I think was a smart, nuanced perspective—speaking about how the undocumented workforce undercuts labor standards for all workers, because undocumented workers fear deportation and because wage and hour laws haven’t been adequately enforced. It’s also encouraging that Clinton highlighted the problems with one of the main guestworker programs, the H-1B—used mainly for jobs in computer-related occupations—although unfortunately she did not discuss others like H-2B, L-1, or OPT.
I have to confess that I was quite surprised and pleased to hear Clinton make those comments. In the very recent past Clinton seemed reluctant to acknowledge that there were any real problems when it came to immigration and the labor market, or that there could be negative consequences for U.S. workers who are employed in industries where migrants make up a large share of the workforce. In fact, during the presidential campaign Clinton and her surrogates went so far as to use Sen. Bernie Sanders’s critique of guestworker programs—namely, that they leave migrant workers powerless and can degrade wages and labor standards—to attack him as somehow anti-immigration and anti-immigrant. I didn’t feel that this attack was fair or justified, which is why at the time, I defended Sanders’s policy position at length. Around the same time, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote convincingly how “Demanding Guestworker Reforms Is Pro-Immigrant”—but without naming any candidates.
To her credit, Clinton now expresses concern that H-1B guestworkers can be vastly underpaid and that they are tied to their employers—noting explicitly that workers on H-1B visas are more “compliant” because they want to stay in the country. That means they won’t feel safe to complain when things go wrong in the workplace, which negatively impacts the ability of their American co-workers to speak up too. And Clinton was explicit about “how callous and insensitive American corporations have become to their American workers”—naming Disney in particular—because corporations (abetted by outsourcing companies) are using the H-1B program to replace their skilled, incumbent U.S. workforce with much lower-paid H-1B guestworkers. A number of firms have even forced their U.S. workers to train their own guestworker replacements. Clinton also didn’t mince words when she pointed out that this is “obviously a cost-cutting measure to be able to pay people less than you would pay an American worker.”
We haven’t seen many Democrats—whether elected or on the campaign trail—say these things and in such clear terms. That makes Clinton’s statement quite significant, and because she is the presumptive Democratic nominee and would become the leader of the Democratic party if she wins in November, statements like these could give license to and encourage others in her party to speak out about the countless abuses that are occurring as a result of the problematic legal frameworks of U.S. guestworker programs and the lack of enforcement therein.
The position Clinton took Monday on H-1B is also significant because a few years ago she seemed much more sympathetic to the tech industry’s positions on H-1B, namely the industry’s goal to raise the annual numerical limit for the H-1B program. Her position now seems to have shifted to one that is much more skeptical of the tech industry’s claims of current and looming labor shortages in STEM fields and of the need to increase the number of guestworker visas.
This is the first time I’ve seen Sec. Clinton offer an opinion on immigration that was this balanced and focused on having an immigration system that is fair to, and seeks to protect, both U.S. workers and the undocumented workers and guestworkers for whom enforcing labor rights is often impossible. Purely from a policy standpoint, I think this new focus on fairness and improving labor standards for all workers through immigration reform is a great thing and long overdue.
On the other hand, Clinton did not provide much in the way of substantive policy proposals to fix the problems she identified. For example, does Clinton want to implement all the key guestworker reforms that are necessary to protect migrant and American workers alike—like raising prevailing wage rates in the H-1B and H-2B programs and increasing enforcement in guestworker programs? Or shifting to a different labor migration model altogether: one that doesn’t indenture migrant workers to their employers and that allows temporary migrants to self-petition for permanent residency after a short provisional period?
Clinton did seem to suggest that she would support at least one key guestworker reform, namely, requiring companies to do more to hire qualified Americans. Under the current rules, employers have no obligation to recruit American workers before hiring an H-1B. (In the interview Clinton says: “I want to see companies have to do more to employ already qualified Americans.”) But she left it unclear whether she would nevertheless give the tech industry what it wants as long as it is part of a compromise to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package.
To increase confidence that Sec. Clinton will pursue immigration reforms and policy goals like these, she should speak more often about them and offer concrete proposals. Ideally, Clinton should make guestworker reforms part of her official policy positions and campaign platform. At present, guestworker reforms are not mentioned anywhere on Clinton’s campaign website where she lays out her positions on immigration, nor are they ever mentioned in her factsheet titled “Hillary Clinton’s Initiative on Technology & Innovation.”
Her Vox interview was a great start though.