News Column

Immigration Reform Seen as Good for Business, Labor

April 15, 2013

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.

"Labor came out of these negotiations in relatively good shape," said Bruce Nissen, labor economist at Florida International University. "Of course, there were some in labor who didn't want any guestworker program at all. But I think labor did pretty well, given those numbers."

Labor has traditionally opposed guestworker programs because such laborers have been able to work for only one employer, the one who solicits the visa. That has led to some employers abusing the workers, cheating them of wages and forcing them into substandard living and working conditions because the workers have no alternatives.

The new W visa will allow guestworkers to switch employers if they can find another employer registered with the program who needs workers. If the new rules are followed, they will be paid commensurate with U.S. workers in similar jobs and be allowed to apply for legal residence after one year in the country.

On the other hand, employers will also be forced to do more recruiting for American workers before they can apply for a foreign guestworker in the first place, which will theoretically protect the current workforce.

"We were adamant about making sure we addressed the future flow of workers and that all the workers have their rights," said De Leon. "This deal will make a huge difference."

As for 20,000 W visas to begin, De Leon considers the figure acceptable.

"There are plenty of capable workers without jobs right now in the United States, given our rate of unemployment, and no need to look to foreign countries for workers," he said.

Hospitality in Florida

He said in Florida it was necessary to protect jobs for U.S. workers in construction and the service sector, in particular hospitality. Palm Beach County has seen hundreds of jobs in its resort and country club industry go to foreign guestworkers in recent years through the use of U.S. Labor Department H-2B unskilled labor visas and State Department J-1 student intern and trainee visas.

"We don't like that and we're going to be keeping an eye on the use of those visas, too," De Leon said.

Agriculture in Florida also employs hundreds of thousands of undocumented people but those workers will be dealt with separately and under different rules under the immigration reform.

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a business organization trying to influence immigration policy, has no argument with the worker protections built into the new W visa.

"The right to quit is the ultimate worker right," she says, "to be able to tell the employer to shove it."

But she says the proposed numbers for W visas are inadequate.

"If you buy a dress that is one size too small, maybe you can fit into it," she says. "But if you buy a dress five sizes too small, there's no way."

Jacoby quotes immigration statistics that show an average flow of 350,000 undocumented people into the country each year from 2003 to 2009, most of whom ended up employed, she says. Even in the midst of the recession in 2011, 150,000 people entered, Jacoby says.

Jacoby insists if employers are not allowed more guestworker visas when they need them, the flow of illegal labor across the Mexican border will continue, with people-smugglers and document-forgers simply becoming more adept.

"Workers for the construction industry, for hospitality, food processing, meat processing, home health care, grounds-keepers, janitors," she says, will still be needed and employers will require more than 20,000 visas to fill jobs.

Business numbers doubted

Nissen, the labor economist, believes business is crying wolf.

"What they want is a supply of workers well above what they need, so that workers will compete against each other, so they can keep compensation low," he says.

Leticia Adams, speaking for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, is not as unhappy with the 20,000 number as Jacoby.

"It seems like a reasonable scale but whether it not fully meets all the needs is still up in the air," she said. "In Florida we have such divergent needs for seasonal work, in agriculture and tourism. The case is beginning to made by each industry as to what their current needs are and what their future estimated needs will be. Not having enough workers would be a serious problem."

Adams says one necessity would be a cap that could be broken if it became impossible to find American workers to fill jobs.

In the end, who controls the new bureau that will set the caps on W visas will be crucial. That promises to be a political fight between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

But even with all the quibbling about numbers, Grady of the Chamber wants to see the legalization legislation pass Congress.

"The devil is in the details," says Grady. "But if you dwell on the details, you never get out of the starting blocks."


(c)2013 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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Source: Copyright Palm Beach Post (FL) 2013

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