We haven't discussed the "grand compromise" immigration bill all that much around here -- and when we have, it's been primarily to examine the political toxicity of the xenophobia oozing out of the Republican body politic as they oppose any reform, however mild, that gives undocumented immigrants a chance to normalize their status. And, yeah, I'll grant you that it's fun to watch the Republicans implode and poison themselves for decades with the most rapidly growing sector of the electorate. But the fact that Tancredo and the Minutemen oppose this bill doesn't make it something worth supporting. It's not. And when you look at it closely, it's a bill that progressives ought to vigorously oppose.
In fact, this immigration bill is an historically bad bill, one that will undermine wage markets and which will permanently cripple skills training in vital sectors of the economy. And -- contrary to Lou Dobbs and the nativists -- the critical problem with the bill has nothing to do with the path to citizenship provided therein. Hell, everyone this side of the Minutemen agrees that there needs to be a humane path to citizenship for those undocumented workers who are living, working, and contributing in the United States. The fact that this bill provides a version of that path is about the only positive aspect of the legislation. No, the fatal flaw in this bill isn't "amnesty" -- it's the euphemistically termed "temporary worker program."
The temporary worker program has nothing to do with immigration policy. To the contrary -- it is a guaranteed cheap labor program grafted on to an immigration bill. When most people think of "immigration" to the US, they think of people coming to America to build a new life for themselves and their families, just as their ancestors did. But the temporary worker program has nothing to do with building American families and American dreams. Under the program, 400,000-600,000 guest workers would enter the country every year on two-year visas. Although the visas can be renewed twice, recipients would be denied any path to permanent residency or citizenship. In fact, the guest workers would be precluded from even applying for permanent residency while here on temporary visas.
In short, the "temporary workers" will be just that -- "temporary," and "workers." Not "immigrants." And they can never be "Americans." Instead, we will have created a permanent caste of non-citizens with no hope of ever becoming citizens. A class of over half-a-million workers without a voice in the political process, here at the sole sufferance of their employers.
And those employers won't have to pay their new indentured servants any more than the minimum wage. See, unlike the existing H-2B visa -- the visa that governs most "unskilled" temporary workers in the US today -- the proposed temporary worker program contains no requirements that employers pay their temporary help the federally determined "prevailing wage" for their occupation and the geographic area. Today, if a contractor can't find an qualified electrician to work on a project in Chicago, the contractor can apply for an H-2B visa. But the contractor is required to pay any foreign electrician entering the US on the H-2B no less than $53.57 per hour, including benefits. That's the prevailing wage for an electrician in Chicago, according to the Department of Labor. And by requiring H-2B sponsors to pay their foreign help the prevailing wage, the H-2B program limits the ability of employers to use guest workers as a tool to undermine wage markets. The proposed temporary worker plan changes all that.
Under the proposed plan, there is no wage floor. If the Chicago contractor can't find an electrician in the US to work on his project for $20 per hour, he can import a temporary worker who will. The result will be a swift collapse of wage markets in many industries populated by skilled non-professional workers, like construction. And all of a sudden, we'll be hearing that the work of an electrician is one of those "jobs Americans won't do," like fruit picking. The truth, of course, is that there is no job that an American won't do for the right price. But by creating a steady flow of temporary workers with no ability to stay in the country for more than a couple years, and no practical ability to fight for better wages, the number of jobs that "Americans won't do" will grow dramatically. And they include a host of the jobs that sustain and nourish the middle class. The construction trades. Cosmetology. Culinary arts. These are jobs that take years to master, and consequently pay quite well, because not just anybody can do them. But by busting open the labor markets for these jobs, and opening them with no restrictions to folks from countries with much lower costs of living, we will strangle the middle class lives of the millions of Americans who have proudly earned their paychecks with their skills.
Now lawyers, doctors, and a host of other professionals are immune from this sort of threat, because each of those groups have -- through their guilds (the ABA, the state bar associations, the AMA, NASBA) -- seized control of the state licensing procedures governing who can ply their trade in each profession. Politicians, too, have little to fear, as the populace can't seek to replace congresscritters (or Hill staffers) with indentured temporary foreign labor. So the people who crafted this bill, and most of the friends of those people, are immune from its depredations. Maybe they don't understand just what this bill will do to broad swaths of middle-class America. But for Americans who don't enjoy state protection of their labor markets, the temporary worker program turns an immigration bill into a direct assault on their ability to command a market wage. And once the temporary worker program is established, it's hard to imagine that the visa cap will remain at 600,000 per year. The Chamber of Commerce and its allies in every industry will continue to manufacture worker shortages by artificially lowering wages, and Congress will play along and issue more and more temporary visas. And one day, we'll wake up and there won't be but a handful of skilled American tradespeople in the US -- because the wage markets will have been deliberately eroded to the point where those positions are filled almost entirely by 21st Century indentured servants. Domestic training in those trades will have vanished, and even if a young American (perhaps a first-generation child of immigrant parents?) were interested in learning how to weld, there wouldn't be anyplace to learn. America will have become like Dubai -- a nation crowded with gleaming skyscrapers built and maintained by exploited foreigners living in labor camps.
There's no question that we need immigration reform in this country. We need to find a way to bring the millions of immigrants laboring in the shadows into the light, and into our American family. And to the extent that we have bona fide labor shortages in this country, we need to address them through an expansion of legal immigration. But the price of immigration reform cannot be a temporary worker program that exploits foreign workers, limits real immigration, and guts wages for American workers.
This week, the Senate will bring the immigration bill back to the floor, and we're told that the leadership will use hardball parliamentary tactics to limit amendments. Word is that the Dorgan-Boxer amendment, which passed earlier this month and seeks to temper the negative effects of the temporary worker program by sunsetting it in five years, will be stripped from the bill. But unless the temporary worker program is eliminated, or at least seriously modified to provide a wage floor akin to that in the H-2B program, this bill is not worthy of passage.
Tancredo and his ilk are plainly wrong about immigration. Immigration is a fact of life, and immigrant workers who are extended the right to organize and the right to become citizens will fight for better wages and conditions alongside their native-born co-workers. Immigration, you could say, is good for America. But this bill isn't just about immigration, and we ought not support it simply because the bad guys oppose it. This is not a progressive bill. And if we can't get a progressive bill now, it would be better to wait till January 2009 to try again than to pass a bad bill now.
It's a truism that the US only passes an immigration bill every 20 years; the last major reform was in 1986, and the one before that in the mid-60's. Therefore -- in light of the generational significance of any immigration bill -- if the choice truly is between one with the Chamber of Commerce-crafted cheap labor program and no bill at all, we can afford to wait for a bill that works for all immigrants and for all Americans. So to Senator Kennedy, and to the other well-intentioned Democrats who want a bill so badly that they have lost sight of the pernicious long-term effects of this compromise, I say: mend it, or we're gonna end it.
UPDATE: Several folks have noted that the Bingaman amendment, which would limit the number of guest visas to 200,000 per year, and 400,000 at any given time, passed during the earlier debate on the bill. I regret the oversight, although the cap number could easily be lifted following passage of the bill, and passage of the Bingaman amendment does not in a substantial manner alter the corrosive effect the a temporary worker plan without meaningful wage floor is likely to have on American wages.
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