Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate nearly paved the way for compromise immigration legislation that we at the National Urban League fear would have undermined labor protections for all workers in this nation and would have exacted a great toll on an already-frayed social safety net.
Fortunately, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid failed to muster the necessary number of votes to end debate on the measure, which enjoyed bipartisan support and sponsorship by GOP presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain and liberal stalwart Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Now, federal lawmakers will be forced to take a second look at the so-called "grand bargain" if they hope to help President George W. Bush achieve his top domestic priority – that of immigration reform.
Not since 1986 has the U.S. Congress and White House succeeded in enacting legislation designed to tackle the escalating problem of illegal immigration. Put into effect during the Reagan administration, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provided for a beefing up of security along the U.S.-Mexican border, established harsh penalties for employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants, and most notably, granted amnesty to 2.8 million undocumented workers already in the United States.
But the effort largely failed to curb the tidal wave of immigration that is estimated to have brought as many as 24 million new immigrants – nearly 12 million or so legal and an estimated 12 million undocumented -- to our nation's shores since 1990. We are all aware about the important role that immigrants play in our nation's history and economy. In 2006, one out of every seven legal workers was foreign born, and half of the 23 million had arrived since 1990. Over the past decade, they've accounted for at least half the growth of the U.S. labor force, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In addition, a recent Pew Hispanic Center study finds that one out of every 20 U.S. workers is undocumented.
The least-educated immigrants end up taking the lowest-paying jobs, which makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation, especially if they are guest workers or undocumented. To some extent, they compete with less-educated Americans for jobs but not as much now as in the past when the number of native-born workers with less than a high school diploma was greater. CBO estimates that the recent influx of less-educated immigrants "probably slows the growth" of wages of Americans with comparable skills in the short term but only modestly.
Our greatest concern revolves around the legislation's temporary worker provision that allows U.S.-based companies to bring as many as 200,000 foreign-born guest workers a year into the nation to stay for up to six years in three-year stints. Any effort to issue these visas should be narrowly tailored and combined with a requirement that the nation's current workers – Black, White, Hispanic, Asian and Native American – be given the first right to jobs employers are seeking temporary visas for.
We're worried that, in the words of the Washington Post, "the cumbersome, unrealistic and unseemly regimen" will produce a new class of exploitable and exploited workers. It will also require a major commitment to enforcement, which doesn't appear to be a huge Bush administration priority. In 2004, the feds issued only three notices that it intended to fine companies for immigration law violations, down significantly from 417 notices in 1999, according to a 2006 Associated Press story.
That's where our agreement with the Post, which voiced its support for the compromise as a whole, ends. We're not so sold on the idea that enacting flawed legislation just to fulfill some grand campaign promise or win a vote on Election Day is in the best interest of Americans.
We do support establishing a process for illegal immigrants residing in the United States to eventually obtain legal residency or even citizenship, but oppose linking amnesty with temporary worker visas. These are two separate and distinct issues that should not be confused. It makes the compromise untenable in our eyes.
There's a dire need for the nation to invest heavily in efforts to recruit, train and place U.S.-born workers for available jobs instead of allowing businesses to import labor for the same jobs. But what we're most concerned about is how an influx of low-cost temporary workers without the protection of labor and minimum wage laws, housing and health benefits will impact the way businesses deal with labor in the future and how it could affect our social safety net. We're concerned that this will exact a huge cost on the United States, especially on state and local governments and on an already overburdened healthcare system.
That's why we're urging the Washington establishment to return to the drawing board and produce a real fix for America's broken immigration laws, which not only reflects our historic compassion for immigrants but also represents sound economic policy.
Marc Morial is President and CEO, National Urban League