Why the W-Visa agreement should be welcomed

There are reports that the AFL-CIO, representing all unions, and the Chamber of Commerce have reached an agreement on a new temporary foreign worker visa program to be included in the comprehensive immigration package being negotiated in the Senate. The new W-Visa will be created for employers to petition for foreign workers in lesser-skilled, non-seasonal non-agricultural occupations. This is a good thing, and not simply because the framework for the program draws heavily on the policies developed by former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall working with my EPI colleague Ross Eisenbrey and others at EPI.

There was always a danger that business groups would be successful in their efforts to vastly expand programs that exploit temporary guestworkers and depress wages and labor standards for all workers. In fact, that’s the way current programs work. Another danger was that disputes in this arena would derail the broader immigration reform effort, particularly when it comes to regularizing the undocumented workforce.

Many details are not available or will have to be developed. Nevertheless, what we do know suggests that this will be a modestly scaled program that protects the workers involved and does not undercut wages. Indeed, the program is not for “temporary” workers or for “guests” at all: rather, workers (not their employers!) will be able to petition for permanent status after one year. This is a huge improvement, since current procedures for green cards give a key role to the employer, which obviously gives them great power over a worker seeking permanent resident status. Providing a path to permanent status—and eventually citizenship—makes sense to me because I always wondered why, if there’s a shortage, we need a “guest” rather than a worker?

Foreign labor recruiters will be regulated: they now regularly bilk temporary workers for thousands of dollars and make promises that are never meant to be fulfilled and cannot be enforced. Workers will not be tied to a single employer but can change jobs, a shift which, hopefully, empowers workers so they can avoid exploitation. All workers will be covered by the same state and federal employment laws as their U.S.-born co-workers. The number of visas will rise to 75,000 in the fourth year, far less than the 400,000 per year sought by business groups. After the fourth year the number of visas will be set by a predetermined methodology that takes into account unemployment rates and job openings, as well as the recommendations of a new bureau staffed by professionals who can assess whether true shortages exist. The latter is exactly what Ray Marshall and EPI have proposed all along, and is a huge step forward, since otherwise, annual visa levels would be set by the political pull of low-wage employers.

Unfortunately, this program does not replace or reform existing programs, like the H-2B program. If you want to see some of inherent problems with these programs you should check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent report, Close to Slavery. Hopefully this new visa program will be a model for further reforms. It is also unfortunate that this agreement does not address temporary worker programs in higher-paying, more skilled occupations, in particular, the H-1B program that high tech firms want to vastly expand, without fixing the huge legal loopholes they take advantage of. For more on that, see our recent paper on the use of the H-1B for recruiting the ‘best and the brightest’ workers. Although I welcome the new W visa program, there’s more work left to do in order to protect immigrant and domestic workers.