Sen. Hatch’s H-1B bill and other guestworker proposals should be kept out of Senate immigration debate

Daniel Costa

Daniel Costa Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research, EPI

In the context of this week’s immigration debate in the Senate, Republican Senators will push for the reforms in the Secure and Succeed Act of 2018, which reflect the White House’s policy priorities for immigration. It’s likely, however, that one or more Senators will try to attach legislation to increase the number of temporary migrant workers who lack adequate wage and worker protections onto any bill that emerges. The thrust of any guestworker proposals that may arise will be to widen the essentially lawless zone in the labor market that has been carved out by the proliferation of temporary work visa programs, which put American and permanent immigrant workers into competition with temporary migrants who are denied all opportunity to bargain meaningfully for higher wages. This week’s debate in the Senate should prioritize providing a path to citizenship for DREAMers, not opportunistically expanding the share of workers in America who are not protected by labor standards.

As the Los Angeles Times recently suggested, there may be an attempt to include a bill from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that would triple the number of college-educated temporary migrant workers who are employed in the H-1B visa program—a flawed guestworker program used mainly to outsource jobs in information technology and send high-tech jobs offshore. Hatch’s bill is known as I-Squared, and although Hatch is trying to sell it as an increase in “merit-based” immigration, it is primarily an attempt to increase the number of temporary migrant workers the tech industry can hire at low wages.

There is no question in anyone’s mind that the United States will always need to attract the best and brightest workers from abroad, and many employers claim the H-1B visas is a tool to achieve that. But any migrant workers who enter the U.S. labor market must do so with equal rights, fair pay, and a quick path to permanent residence and citizenship that the worker controls—not the employer. Unfortunately, the H-1B guestworker program fails to meet any of those requirements. Hatch’s I-Squared bill would exacerbate the problems the H-1B program creates by vastly increasing the number of H-1B workers while failing to fix the three main problems with the H-1B program: first, employers are allowed to legally underpay H-1B workers compared to similarly situated U.S. workers; second, employers do not have to recruit U.S. workers before hiring H-1B workers, allowing them to ignore the U.S. workforce altogether; and third, the H-1B program allows employers to replace U.S. workers with much lower-paid H-1B workers—a deplorable practice that has occurred far too many times—and the laid-off workers are often forced to train their own H-1B replacements as a condition of their severance pay.

I-Squared purports to fix the third problem but actually does a pump-fake by requiring that any enforcement agency investigating the replacement of a U.S. worker “shall bear the burden of proving that the employer acted with the purpose and intent to replace the United States worker with the H-1B” worker. Agents at enforcement agencies like the departments of Labor and Homeland Security are not mind readers, therefore this is an impossible legal standard to achieve. A commonsense standard would allow the “purpose and intent” of the employer to be inferred if an agency or worker can prove that an employer in fact replaced a U.S. worker with an H-1B worker. The legal standard in Hatch’s bill proves that the Senator doesn’t want any H-1B employer to ever be punished for replacing U.S. workers in order to pay lower wages to their workforce.

Other Republican Senators, especially Tillis (R-N.C.) and Flake (R-Ariz.), who are both on the Judiciary Committee, have long supported expanding guestworker programs for lesser-skilled, mostly low-wage jobs—namely the H-2B program, which is used primarily by employers in the landscaping, forestry, hospitality, seafood, and construction industries. Despite the fact that the H-2B program is associated with countless disturbing cases of worker exploitation, wage theft, and even human trafficking—an attempt by a senator to add provisions to a DREAMer bill that would result in a permanent or temporary increase to the H-2B annual limit of 66,000, or amend H-2B wage rules to allow employers to pay their H-2B workers even less than they do now—would not be surprising. In fact, it wouldn’t be a new strategy either: each of the past few years, members of Congress have added legislative riders to omnibus appropriations bills to expand and deregulate the H-2B program. There has been at least one recent similar attempt to modify the H-2A guestworker program for farmworkers—another temporary visa program that leaves workers so vulnerable and indentured that it has been described as “Close to Slavery”—through appropriations riders as well. There are senators in both parties that would likely support proposals on H-2A, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hopes they do just that, having called on senators this week to include agricultural guestworker provisions in any DREAMer bill the Senate produces.

The priority for both parties during this week’s immigration debate should rest squarely on protecting labor standards and providing a path to citizenship for DREAMers—immigrants who have resided in the United States for years, the vast majority of whom are employed and have seen their wages rise as a result of DACA—rather than growing the number of exploited and underpaid workers that employers can hire temporarily in U.S. guestworker programs.

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Reposted from EPI

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Federal Minimum Wage Reaches Disappointing Milestone

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

A disgraceful milestone occurred last Sunday, June 16.

That date officially marked the longest period that the United States has gone without increasing federal the minimum wage.

That means Congress has denied raises for a decade to 1.8 million American workers, that is, those workers who earn $7.25 an hour or less. These 1.8 million Americans have watched in frustration as Congress not only denied them wages increases, but used their tax dollars to raise Congressional pay. They continued to watch in disappointment as the Trump administration failed to keep its promise that the 2017 tax cut law would increase every worker’s pay by $4,000 per year.

More than 12 years ago, in May 2007, Congress passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. It took effect two years later. Congress has failed to act since then, so it has, in effect, now imposed a decade-long wage freeze on the nation’s lowest income workers.

To combat this unjust situation, minimum wage workers could rally and call their lawmakers to demand action, but they’re typically working more than one job just to get by, so few have the energy or patience.

The Economic Policy Institute points out in a recent report on the federal minimum wage that as the cost of living rose over the past 10 years, Congress’ inaction cut the take-home pay of working families.  

At the current dismal rate, full-time workers receiving minimum wage earn $15,080 a year. It was virtually impossible to scrape by on $15,080 a decade ago, let alone support a family. But with the cost of living having risen 18% over that time, the situation now is far worse for the working poor. The current federal minimum wage is not a living wage. And no full-time worker should live in poverty.

While ignoring the needs of low-income workers, members of Congress, who taxpayers pay at least $174,000 a year, are scheduled to receive an automatic $4,500 cost-of-living raise this year. Congress increased its own pay from $169,300 to $174,000 in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession when low income people across the country were out of work and losing their homes. While Congress has frozen its own pay since then, that’s little consolation to minimum wage workers who take home less than a tenth of Congressional salaries.

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A Friendly Reminder

A Friendly Reminder