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Temporary Workers Program Challenged in Immigration Debate

Some senators on Tuesday challenged the part of the immigration bill that addresses temporary workers, with some vowing to limit or cut the program. The NewsHour takes a closer look at the interests surrounding the temporary worker program.

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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.

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