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Immigration reform 101: Is a sensible guest-worker program possible?

The immigration-reform plan proposed by a group of bipartisan senators seeks to establish a flexible guest-worker program. But labor and business want to do that in two very different ways. 

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Instead, labor leaders like the AFl-CIO’s president, Richard Trumka, point to a “data-driven” system of temporary workers overseen by a government commission.

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For example, a Foreign Worker Adjustment Commission proposed in a 2009 paper by Ray Marshall, an economist and former secretary of Labor in the Carter administration, would oversee all the country’s employment-based immigration programs, from low-skilled seasonal labor to high-skilled technology workers.

The FWAC, composed of presidential appointees confirmed by Congress and the heads of cabinet departments with a role in immigration (like State and Homeland Security), would study labor-market conditions throughout the nation and adjust various visas based on occupational, industrial, and regional worker shortages. 

When the commission offers a recommendation, Congress would have to explicitly reject the finding within one year or the president could implement the finding unilaterally.

The benefit, says Mr. Eisenbrey, is such a system “would force Congress, instead of endlessly stirring the pot and fighting with each other, to do something or face the consequences.”

The problem? Even Mr. Williams, the concept’s creator, conceded in his report that a lack of accurate and timely data “is a valid concern.”

Even with incisive data, there’s the question of how even the most well-intentioned bureaucracy gets a good read on the nation’s employment situation. Would such a commission be replacing one arbitrary visa number with another more expensive, more complex but, in the end, equally arbitrary number?

“If [such a commission] would succeed,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, “the Soviet Union would have succeeded economically.”

It’s a policy difference with a significant political bite. In the last fight over comprehensive immigration reform in the mid-2000s, the AFL-CIO abandoned support for such a bill because of deep opposition to the proposed guest-worker program.

To date, the AFL-CIO's Mr. Trumka and Chamber of Commerce chief Tom Donohue have been getting along splendidly, according to their public pronouncements, with Mr. Donohue saying an accord between the two groups “should speed the process” of getting to an immigration-reform deal.

But a rift between the two, analysts and advocates say, could have a powerful effect to the legislation’s detriment.


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