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Temporary Workers Program Challenged in Immigration Debate

May 22, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: An immigration bill disagreement. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), California: Why would anyone bring this kind of a program to the floor of the United States Senate? It’s the United States Senate. We represent the American worker.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, Democrats Barbara Boxer of California and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota argued that American workers will suffer if 400,000 temporary workers are allowed to cross the border into this country every year, as the immigration bill before the Senate calls for.

SEN. BYRON DORGAN (D), North Dakota: We’re talking about a proposal that says, by the way, there are millions more who are not now living in this country that we wish to invite in on this basis to assume American jobs. We are told that’s necessary because you can’t find Americans to assume those jobs. That is fundamentally false.

KWAME HOLMAN: Supporters of a guest-worker program say immigrant laborers would be filling jobs Americans don’t want. Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: Well, I think temporary workers are obviously needed. We have almost full employment in this country. Most of the people who are coming into the country illegally are coming here for work. Clearly, workers are needed, and we need a temporary worker program that works a lot better than the current temporary worker programs on the books.

KWAME HOLMAN: Under the proposal before the Senate, temporary workers would be granted visas to enter the United States for up to two years. They could renew those visas two more times, but only after returning to their home countries each time for a year.

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Madam President, I believe my amendment is at the desk.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senator Dorgan’s proposal to eliminate the provision from the bill prompted this defense from Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, who helped fashion the compromise.

SEN. JON KYL (R), Arizona: But when we have a need, it’s not being satisfied, and we advertise the job for the same wage that Americans are earning, and we can’t get an American to do that work, then it’s appropriate to say to a foreign national, “If you would like to come here and work under our conditions, abiding by our rules, we will allow you to do that. And, of course, when you’re done, you will return home.”

KWAME HOLMAN: But Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders countered, arguing the influx of temporary workers would put downward pressure on wages and make jobs even more scarce for young Americans.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), Vermont: At a time when millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages and have seen real cuts in their wages and in their benefits, this legislation would, over a period of years, bring millions of low-wage workers from other countries into the United States.

If wages are already this low in Vermont and throughout this country, what happens when more and more people are forced to compete for these jobs? Sadly, in our country today — and this is a real tragedy — over 25 percent of our children drop out of high school and, in some minority neighborhoods, that number is even higher. What kind of jobs will be available for those young people?

KWAME HOLMAN: Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, another chief architect of the plan, argued the job-seekers were going to come anyway.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: The fact of the matter is, some workers will come in here either illegally or legally. One way or the other, they’re going to come in. And that is where the temporary worker program comes in.

We say, on the one hand, if we close this down, if we eliminate this program, effectively you’re going to have those individuals that are going to crawl across the desert and continue to die, as they do now.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the end, Dorgan’s amendment failed, and the guest-worker program remained intact for now. Asked about the mounting criticism of the immigration bill, particularly from members of his own party, Democratic Leader Reid said he saw it as a good sign.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: One of the things that I like about this bill is there’s so much disagreement, and I say that because no one’s happy, no one’s taking advantage of anyone else. That is how we should build consensus and compromise.

KWAME HOLMAN: Debate on the Senate immigration bill will continue through the week.

An experimental program

Laura Reiff
Essential Worker Immigration Coalition
The real problem of the 1986 true amnesty act -- this is not an amnesty act -- but the problem there was we had no vehicle, we had no temporary worker program that would allow workers to come in legally, over the last 21 years now.

JIM LEHRER: And to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: For a closer look at the temporary worker program, we turn to Laura Reiff, co-founder and co-chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a group representing businesses and trade associations. I'll get that right. And Robert Rector, senior research fellow for domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think-tank.

Well, Robert Rector, one of the supporters in the debate this afternoon on the floor, Jon Kyl of Arizona, said, "What we want to do is close the border and eliminate the job magnet, but still keep people who need workers supplied." Does this bill do that?

ROBERT RECTOR, The Heritage Foundation: I support an experimental temporary workers program. I'm very sympathetic to the argument that this may, in fact, suppress the wages of low-skill American workers, and I think we have to be very cautious about that.

I also think, though, that illegal immigration suppresses the wages of low-skill American workers. There's certainly a lot of evidence to that effect. So that I think a small, experimental temporary worker program probably can help meet some employer needs without imposing huge costs on the U.S. taxpayer.

If we bring this type of worker in either legally, as permanent residents and citizens, they have access to welfare. They're very, very expensive to the U.S. taxpayer. I think this provision avoids this. There are many other provisions in this bill that I think are just terrible, but I think this provision kind of walks the line and is worth looking at.

It's a large number of workers, but it's smaller than in the bill last year. And I think it's probably worth thinking about.

I think we don't want to have a continual flow of illegal immigrants. I think we don't want to have a massive influx of very low-skilled legal immigrants who will come into the U.S. and access the welfare system.

The typical immigrant that comes in who doesn't have a high school degree, who becomes a permanent resident, costs the taxpayer on average about $20,000 a year of benefits minus taxes. We can't afford that. The temporary worker program may help, but we do have to be very concerned about the wages of low-skilled Americans.

RAY SUAREZ: Laura Reiff, do the businesses, that are your members, find what they need in this temporary worker program?

LAURA REIFF, Essential Worker Immigration Coalition: Well, this temporary worker program is a good start. We think it's a good start at addressing a problem that has been plaguing the business community for two decades now.

The real problem of the 1986 true amnesty act -- this is not an amnesty act -- but the problem there was we had no vehicle, we had no temporary worker program that would allow workers to come in legally, over the last 21 years now.

So this worker program does have numbers in it. I'm very happy to see that the Dorgan amendment was defeated so that we still have something to talk about tonight, but this program would allow a sufficient number of workers to come in. It's about 400,000. It has a market-based regulator that would allow the numbers to go up and down.

It does provide protections for U.S. workers. There are tests at the stations that businesses have to go through. But we're pleased that the program is in the shape that it's in at this point. We'll have to see what the next week and actually two weeks hold on the floor of the Senate.

Enforcing two-year stays

Robert Rector
Heritage Foundation
One of the things that I'm concerned about is that, what happens if they don't go home? What happens if they just do what temporary workers have tended to do in the past, which is just to stay here illegally?

RAY SUAREZ: The bill provides for workers coming in under these conditions, remaining two years, and then going home for a year. Can businesses placed in the position of being enforcers handle that? Do they want to both lose people that they've trained and are relying on as workers and also be the people who say, "No, sorry, you can't be here now"?

LAURA REIFF: Well, I think, in an ideal world, we would have -- if we had workers coming into this country that we have trained and invested in, we would like to have the opportunity to extend their stay. The whole willing worker-willing employer concept that we've been operating under, we would like to have that opportunity to extend beyond a two-year period.

This program does provide workers for a two-year period. They must go home for a year. They can come back in for two years, and then go home for a year, and then...

RAY SUAREZ: But will they? Will they come back?

LAURA REIFF: It's very hard to see. It's very hard to know that. We live in kind of a fictional world where we've got, you know, 12 million -- 5 percent of our workforce are in undocumented status. We don't know what's going to happen with those folks. We don't know what the true circularity is between their home countries and the United States.

This is a new, new program. We have to wait and see and see what will happen. We hope, as employers, that -- because we have a demand, and we have an economy that needs to be fueled, and we can't find U.S. workers, we hope they will come back. We hope that we can actually make some perfections in this program as it moves through the legislative process, too, that might give us some options to do extensions when we really, truly need these workers.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Rector, does the enforcement part of this, the idea that, after working their set time, these hundreds of thousands of people will go to their home countries, do you think that that's a plausible part of this bill?

ROBERT RECTOR: I think it's an essential part of this bill. I don't think it's very -- it's not really enforced in this bill. One of the things that I'm concerned about is that, what happens if they don't go home? What happens if they just do what temporary workers have tended to do in the past, which is just to stay here illegally?

We continue to have an inflow of perhaps 800,000 a year. There's no adjustment to make sure that the exodus is actually occurring.

And, again, my principal concern: We have imported into the U.S., over the last 20 years or so, 12 million individuals who do not have a high school degree. They're roughly a third of all immigrants in the United States today.

Those individuals receive very large amounts of government benefits and services and pay very little in taxes. The net cost of all of those individuals currently is about $89 billion each year to the taxpayer. We really can't afford that as a nation.

Now, the temporary worker program may be a way of saying, we can have some of these workers, but they don't get to access the welfare system. They don't get to retire on Social Security, things that we really can't afford as a nation.

The pathway to welfare

Robert Rector
Heritage Foundation
If you wanted to be sincere about them being temporary, you ought to measure how many of them actually leave. And you don't let more temporary workers in until you've actually established that the ones that came here did, in fact, go back.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there barriers built around these workers so they don't take money out of the public purse at some point?

ROBERT RECTOR: Yes, this is better. The bill last year essentially put them all on a pathway to citizenship and all on a pathway to welfare. This bill does not do that or it does it to a much less extent.

But the problem that we've seen in the past with temporary worker programs in other countries is, they just stay, and they're here for a while. Another major gap in this bill is that the workers come in, they can bring their families in, their families can put their children in public school. That costs $9,600 per pupil per year. Who's paying for that? Well, the taxpayer gets to pay for it.

Another problem is that, if they come in and a child is born in the U.S. under this system, the child is a U.S. citizen, has immediate access to the U.S. welfare system. It's very expensive, makes it hard to suggest that the parent is then going to leave. I think that's another problem that really should be addressed a little bit more forthrightly in the bill.

RAY SUAREZ: Aren't a lot of the people who are now in the country illegally people who came in under student visas, under various kinds of visitors documents, and just remained in the country?

ROBERT RECTOR: Yes, and I think that's one of my principal concerns with this temporary worker program. I would say that, if you wanted to be sincere about them being temporary, you ought to measure how many of them actually leave. And you don't let more temporary workers in until you've actually established that the ones that came here did, in fact, go back. The bill doesn't do that in its current form.

RAY SUAREZ: Does that part concern you, Laura?

LAURA REIFF: That temporary workers might not leave? I think the vast majority of the undocumented that are here are people who entered without inspection. They're not necessarily overstays; 70 percent of the undocumented population come from Mexico.

It does concern me, the structure of the program, the two, one, two, one, two structure. We may see a lot of overstays.

There is something in this bill, in the work site enforcement provisions of the bill. It's a whole new electronic employment eligibility verification system that employers will be required to comply with. And I think that will be a deterrent for workers to work in facilities where the employer is actually using the program, which is most of our members and the good actor employers.

RAY SUAREZ: But aren't some employers already complaining about the burden that's being put on them implicitly by this package?

LAURA REIFF: Certainly. We have had some very, very grave concerns about what is going to be contained in the final version of a work site enforcement regime. What are employers going to have to do? And how fast are they going to have to do it? And how burdensome and costly is it going to be for employers to comply with the new employment eligibility verification system? That's one issue.

But we have, as an employer community, recognized that we will be required to do this. So we're working with the Department of Homeland Security and legislators to make that system more efficient.

Our fear is, as employers, we do want to keep employees here who are good actors and who are, you know, valuable to our industries. But our fear is that, if we don't have the opportunity to allow them to extend their stays here, there may be an underground community that begins to form. And so there are some perfections that we want to see...

The taxpayer's burden

Laura Reiff
Essential Worker Immigration Coalition
These workers are being counted. They are paying taxes. They are having Social Security withdrawn.

RAY SUAREZ: But you understand how that ended up in the bill. They recognized that, since the 1986 act, many of the people who came in under various programs just ended up staying and disappearing beyond the sight of the law and any attempt to regulate their presence.

LAURA REIFF: Well, I wouldn't say necessarily disappearing, and this is where I take a little bit of difference here with Robert. A lot of these workers work in our industries.

They're working for legitimate, good-actor employers who do everything by the book. They pay taxes. They withhold. They comply with all the regulations they're supposed to be required to comply with. These workers are working hard in our industries. They may have proffered documents that the employer has accepted, because they're facially valid. And as employers, we can't contest that.

So these workers are being counted. They are paying taxes. They are having Social Security withdrawn. And I think a figure that I saw from a noted labor economist, Dan Siciliano, was, you know, there's about $480 billion in the Social Security reserve fund that has been paid in that will never be matched up to these workers.

ROBERT RECTOR: That goes all the way back to 1932.

LAURA REIFF: No, 1986, I believe.

ROBERT RECTOR: But the reality is, and the reason that these workers need to be temporary, is, again, as I said, that they receive a large amount of government benefits and pay very little in taxes. If you import large numbers of them, the taxpayer has to pay that difference, not the employer. The employer likes to pay a little less in wages, but the taxpayer has to bear the burden. And that's really not fair, and it's not something we can afford.

RAY SUAREZ: We're going to have to leave it there. Thank you very much.

LAURA REIFF: Thank you, Ray.