Immigration Reform: The Coming Fight Over The Low-Skilled Worker Visa

The proposal at the heart of the Senate immigration reform bill is realistic but faces a dim future in Congress. Inside the fight over the new W-visa.

  • Share
  • Read Later
John Moore / Getty Images

Mexican migrant workers harvest organic parsley at Grant Family Farms in Wellington, Colo., on Oct.11, 2011.

At the heart of a soon-to-be-released bipartisan compromise on immigration reform is a controversial proposal that would create several new government bureaus and offices to oversee a new generation of legal, low-skilled immigrants—as many as 200,000 a year when the program gets up and running.

The proposal tries to address the ultimate cause of illegal immigration: not merely porous borders or unscrupulous employers, but the immutable fact that jobs here pay better here than ones back there. When Washington has tried to end illegal immigration in the past, Congress has ignored that simple labor market reality. This time, surprisingly, instead of trying to stop the illegal flow of low-skilled foreign workers to unfilled American jobs by increasing penalties and enforcement, the bipartisan bloc of Senators proposes to legalize it, in part.

Under the terms of a deal struck between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce on behalf of the Gang of Eight over Easter weekend, the bill would create a new, low-skilled worker visa: the “W-visa”. After listing a low-skilled job and receiving no acceptable American applicants, an employer could register to recruit a foreign worker. Entering the country for one job, a W-visa holder could legally change jobs immediately. Their initial employer could turn around and hire another W-visa holder the next day. What if a low-skilled worker decides he or she wants to stay? Holders of the W-visa could get on a path for citizenship after one year.

Some immigration experts and economists view the bill as a historic breakthrough. “It’s thoughtful and innovative,” says Tamar Jacoby of ImmigrationWorks USA., a pro-business immigration group. “Supply and demand is going to generate a flow of [foreign low-skilled] workers,” says Jacoby, “It’s our choice whether we want them to come here legally or illegally.”

But even if the policy is right that doesn’t mean the politics are, and the W-visa already seems to have as many enemies as friends, even among the groups that negotiated it. On the left, some unions are unhappy with the proposal because unemployment is still high and they think the W-visa will only keep it that way. They believe punishing businesses that hire illegal immigrants will ultimately force employers to raise wages to  make low-skilled jobs more attractive to American citizens.

Some business groups, for their part, says the program is flawed not because it lets in too many immigrants, but because it doesn’t let in enough. The program would start by issuing 20,000 W-visas per year, then move up to 75,000 after four years. New offices at the Labor Department and U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services would oversee a complicated program to determine when and whether it climbs to an upper limit of 200,000.

Pro-business groups say 350,000 low skilled illegal workers came to the U.S. every year from 2003-09.  If the number of W-visas don’t satisfy labor market demand, they say, other immigrants will come in illegally to fill the gap, undermining the W-visa program. For their part, conservatives fighting to reduce the massive government growth of the last ten years oppose the new federal offices.

The bill’s biggest opponents are those who believe rising immigration is a drag on the American economy and way of life. Rosemary Jenks of NumbersUSA, an organization that advocates for lower levels of immigration, says the W-visa amounts to an admission of failure. What the Senators have done, she says, is “throw up their hands and say we can’t control illegal immigration anyway, so we’re going to hand out visas like candy to everyone who wants to come and work.”

The bill’s authors have tried to address many concerns by splitting the difference. Business gets the structure of a low-skilled worker program, but unions get a limit on the numbers and cap of 200,000 in the out years. Jobs must be offered to American citizens first. For those convinced border security is the answer, other parts of the reform bill call for that, as well as a crack down on businesses that hire undocumented labor.

It’s possible the momentum for immigration reform will be enough to overcome opposition to the W-visa. There are plenty of conservatives, like Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, who join liberals in supporting a low-skilled worker visa. It is just as possible, though, that the W-visa will die, and it could take the entire immigration reform package with it. Either way, say the W-visa advocates, low-skilled workers will find their way to the U.S. in search of unfilled jobs.

With reporting by Alex Altman/Washington
PHOTOS: America’s Undocumented Immigrants