shutterstock_62252629A proposal being considered in the House revives the debate around the number of visas that would be allocated to less skilled workers, also known as “W” visas. In particular, Representatives Ted Poe of Texas and Raul Labrador of Idaho are working on an immigration bill that could double the number of visas of less skilled workers that the Senate settled on.  Although the increased number could help address the labor shortage in some industries, this proposal would potentially cause a fracture in the consensus achieved between business and labor leaders who negotiated the levels that were included in S. 744. Ultimately, what is critical to success of a program depends on having the right players at the table ensuring both private and public interests are protected.

Going back to February of this year, the US Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO released a historic joint statement of principles for immigration reform agreeing on the need to establish a new legal system that would enable employers to forego a complicated and inefficient process for hiring  foreign workers while also protecting the wages and working conditions of U.S. and immigrant workers. The agreement called for the creation of a worker visa program that would adjust to the fluctuations of the economic cycle and prevent visa holders from being held under permanent temporary status. Following concessions by both groups, these principles were crystalized in a more detailed deal a month later.

The Senate Immigration Bill clearly embraces some of the tenets that business and labor had agreed upon. Through the new W visa (also known as new worker visa), the bill creates stronger channels for lower-skilled workers when the economy is growing. The W visa program would admit 20,000 workers starting in 2015, and could gradually expand to 200,000 after five years. A new statistical agency, called the Bureau of Immigration and Labor, would be created within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to oversee the program. This new agency would determine the annual cap for W visas and establish the list of recruitment methods employers may use. It would also conduct surveys to assess shortages in occupations by job zones and conduct studies on employment-based visa programs. Workers  with W status would eventually be eligible to apply for a green card, representing  the first time that less skilled nonimmigrant workers would be allowed to transition to permanent resident status without an employer’s sponsorship.

As a result of these provisions, the number of W visas would grow steadily until it reaches a level that is in line with the country’s workforce needs. Its expansion would be tied to the specific needs of the economy in particular occupations and would therefore be highly regulated to prevent harm to American workers.

The number of visas allotted in the Poe-Labrador proposal, on the other hand, could be rejected by labor leaders, who have already expressed their unwillingness to accept the visa program as a stand-alone measure. Although the issue appears to be about numbers at face value, what’s really at stake here extends well beyond the number of allocated visas. Legislation that is supported by two key collective actors representing workers and businesses has a greater chance of success—not only regarding the likelihood of becoming law but also in its capacity of constituting a sustainable solution. As sociologist Peter Evans has shown, policies that are based on an autonomous state that is also productively connected with the private sector are more likely to be effective. In fact, some of the most prosperous cases in the history of capitalism are those in which labor and business were seated at the same table agreeing on basic economic principles.  The tripartite agreements that resulted in the postwar economic expansion in several European countries are but one example. There is plenty of evidence that shows that cooperation between governments, employers’ organizations and workers’ organizations is critical for economic prosperity and social stability and is also consonant with democratic ideals. It is no accident that the International Labor Organization has adopted this concept to guide its operations. For immigration reform, gaining support from both business and labor will bring about an important compromise, but should also lead to good policy.

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