Fernando, 35, from Mexico, held a job in Naples installing windows and
doors -- until his employer found out he was undocumented and let him go.
Without other options, Fernando headed back to the farm fields of Immokalee and
the backbreaking job of picking tomatoes.
But if the immigration reform being hammered out in Congress passes, Fernando, who has been in the U.S. 15 years, will be able to obtain a work permit and head back to Naples.
"The boss told me I was a good worker and if I became legal he would give me my job back if he could," says Fernando, who asked that his last name not be used.
Representatives of both business and labor are rooting for Fernando. They have been involved in intense negotiations for months over immigration reform, butting heads on some issues. But on the legalization of the 11 million undocumented people here, they are in agreement.
"Having an underground workforce undermines the wages of all workers," says Pablo De Leon, senior field representative in Florida for the AFL-CIO. He says legalization will allow workers who are undocumented now to insist on better pay because they will have more employment alternatives.
Dennis Grady, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, is fine with that. He believes a larger and more reliable supply of legal labor is the key benefit of the reform. The legislation would increase that pool by millions in anticipation of a continued rebound and economic growth after the recent recession.
"We need to make sure we have workers available when employers need them," he says.
Bills being shaped in the Senate and House have not yet been released but reports indicate they will include not only legalization of the undocumented, but increased numbers of visas for high-skilled foreign workers in the science, engineering, technology and math fields, greater border enforcement, and stricter measures to keep employers from hiring undocumented workers at all skill levels.
Numbers of guestworkers
The most intense battle between business and labor is how to deal with future shortages of low-skilled labor through carefully calibrated foreign guestworker programs. How many foreign workers should be issued visas and allowed in the country every year? Who will determine the need and in which industries? How will their wages be set? What will those workers rights be?
It was that issue that helped derail immigration reform in 2007, when business and labor could not agree. Labor said it was trying to protect U.S. jobs for U.S. workers and insisted on a small number of such guestworker visas. Business claimed it was afraid of labor shortages and wanted a lot more.
In the most important breakthrough of recent Washington negotiations, that hurdle has been cleared. Representatives of the U.S. Chambere and the AFL-CIO reached an agreement that creates an escalating scale of guestworker visas -- called W visas. Starting at 20,000 the first year, they will climb to 75,000 in the fourth year. After that, a cap of 200,000 will eventually be in place and the exact number of W visas issued will be determined by a new Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Conditions.
Labor won more
The consensus is that labor emerged with more of what it wanted on the guestworker issue than business, at least for the moment.
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