April 25, 2008

Capitol Hill Sparks Fly Over Guestworkers

By Kent Paterson
Frontera NorteSur

With thousands of foreign workers granted H2-B visas to work legally in the US hospitality and other industries every year, debate over the future of the guestworker program is growing. For instance, employers in resort communities argue they cannot find enough willing local workers to fill available jobs and must resort to contracting foreigners. Opponents of the H2-B system, meanwhile, contend it is depriving US citizens of employment opportunities while creating a sub-class of easily exploitable workers.

Divisions over the H2-B program were evident when a House judiciary subcommittee chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Ca.) gathered testimony on Capitol Hill last week. On the pro side of the debate, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) urged Congress to expand the number of H2-B visas in order to meet vital economic demand. AILA President Kathleen Campbell Walker said adding more visas to the pool was a “no brainer.”

In a statement, Walker’s group said the US Citizenship and Immigration Services should approve visa petitions on file for the second half of 2008 in order to fulfill the Congressionally-mandated cap. In a message dubbed “Save Our Summer,” the AILA said the restaurant, hotel, landscaping, construction and seafood industries could be among economic sectors damaged by the failure to approve enough H2-B guest-workers. The lawyers’ group also said approving H2-B visas would contribute to assuring legality in the immigrant work-force. Walker praised Congress’ review of the H2-B issue.

“The subcommittee is working to connect the dots between valid labor needs and our immigration laws,” Walker said.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a left-leaning, Washington-based think tank, presented a starkly different view of the H2-B program.

Testifying before Lofgren’s subcommittee, EPI Vice-President Ross Eisenbrey said his organization’s researchers found no evidence of labor shortages in sectors of the economy employing H2-B workers. Despite the absence of economic necessity, the program grew from 10,000 workers in FY1993 to 130,000 in FY2007, Eisenbrey said. Besides undermining US workers and their working conditions, Eisenbrey maintained that the guestworker system is creating “dependencies among businesses for docile foreign workers with no voice, no bargaining power and few rights..”

Noting that the US is falling into recession and rising unemployment, the EPI called for cutting back or eliminating the H2-B program altogether.

The research organization proposed reforms to include better publicizing of job opportunities for US workers; assuring that prevailing wages remain the industry standard; allowing H2-B guestworkers to join unions and have collective bargaining power, and strengthening the legal language in guestworker contracts. In addition to the H2-B program, Congress is expected to hold other hearings on immigration-related matters in the coming weeks.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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