March 28, 2013— -- A group of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have run into trouble creating a new visa for lesser-skilled immigrant workers as part of a broader immigration reform bill. The visa could potentially offer a way for immigrants in occupations like retail and construction to come to the U.S. legally.
Senators have been in talks with the country's biggest labor union, the AFL-CIO, and biggest business lobby, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, trying to find a middle ground that will protect worker rights but also give businesses access to a legal labor force. But so far, no final agreement has been reached.
From the labor standpoint, however, the visa isn't an essential part of immigration reform, and the bill could go forward without addressing future flows of lesser-skilled workers.
At an event at the U.S. Capitol Building yesterday, Ana Avendaño, a top immigration policy aide at AFL-CIO, said that a visa for lesser-skilled workers "is arguably really not necessary to be in the package."
That doesn't mean labor has stopped working for a deal, Avendaño said. But from their perspective, a path to citizenship for the country's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants is the main priority.
A legalization program, as well as clearing the backlog to immigrate to the U.S., would expand the country's legal workforce, according to Avendaño. Those workers, plus workers coming in through existing employment-based visas, would provide enough labor to handle the current employment demand, she said.
What could it mean if an immigration deal somehow didn't address future flows of lesser-skilled workers? Here's a look:
Fewer Pathways for Immigrants From Latin America
Mexican immigrants make up 59 percent of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to a 2009 report by the Pew Hispanic Center. The same study found the 78 percent of undocumented immigrants came from Latin America.
The vast majority of those immigrants work in manual-labor occupations like construction, services, and production, installation and repair.
We don't know exactly which occupations will be eligible for the new visa being developed, but we do know that it will be for jobs that aren't seasonal and aren't temporary, so that may or may not include some of the manual labor jobs mentioned above.
Of course, migration trends may change. Data shows that immigration from Mexico could dry up in the coming years, for example. But judging by the current makeup of undocumented immigrants, newcomers from Latin American would be most impacted by the lack of a new visa program.
Immigrant Workers Could Remain in the Shadows
After an immigration bill legalized 2.7 million immigrants in 1986, salaries went up for undocumented workers, according to research by UCLA professor Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda.
But legalized workers are also more likely to move to better jobs. Without a new immigrant work force to replace currently undocumented workers, employers could be faced with either raising salaries to attract legal workers or recruiting a new wave of undocumented immigrants.
That decision may hinge on how easy or difficult it is to continue hiring undocumented immigrants. The immigration reform bill being drafting in the Senate will make it mandatory for employers to verify whether a worker is in the country legally. But the voluntary system being used now -- E-Verify -- failed to detect undocumented workers 54 percent of the time, according to the most recent government study, which looked at data from 2007 and 2008.
If an employment verification system is easy to beat, employers will likely continue to use undocumented workers.
Alex Nowrasteh, the immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, cites the 1986 legalization program under President Ronald Reagan as an example of how immigration reform can fail if it doesn't account for future waves of lesser-skilled immigrants:
"Failing to provide a legal immigration pathway to peaceful and healthy immigrants of all skill levels soon erased the gains of Reagan's amnesty," Nowrasteh wrote in a December 2012 Politico op-ed. "After Reagan's amnesty, enforcement increased along with a seemingly intractable unauthorized immigration problem."