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Timothy P. Carney: Immigration bill’s guest-worker program is corporate welfare

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The immigration bill plodding across Capitol Hill this year is described as a compromise between many competing interests and constituencies. It certainly offers some pain and some gain for the causes of law and order, labor and immigrants.

But for big business, this bill is a big winner. The biggest complaint business has about the bill before the Senate last week — and the White House’s biggest complaint too — is that the guest-worker program is not even bigger.

The Senate bill would create a guest-worker program that would grant 200,000 (the White House wants 400,000) special "Y visas" to foreigners who want to work in the U.S. The three-year visas (also available to illegal immigrants who pay a fine) would be renewable once, but the guest worker would not be eligible to apply for citizenship and could not legally stay longer than six years. Also, a guest worker would be allowed to stay in the country only as long as he is employed in certain jobs approved by the Department of Labor.

The limitations and stipulations in this program all address legitimate concerns. The temporary status of these visas is meant to keep this program from being a backdoor amnesty to permanent residency.

In an effort to make sure these workers are filling "jobs Americans won’t do," (a favorite phrase of the president), temporary workers can only work for employers who have demonstrated that they can’t find American hires. But these provisions are also perfectly crafted to benefit big businesses that rely on unskilled labor by creating a work force with little or no bargaining power.

Now, low-skilled workers don’t start off with a great bargaining position. But short-term, low-skilled laborers are even worse off. The temporary worker program guarantees, manages and systematizes constant turnover of the labor force. This helps prevent unionization and softens workers’ demands for raises, pensions or benefits.

The program also threatens to create a class of compliant workers by effectively giving employers the power of deportation. Unlike most people, these temporary workers can’t leave their jobs if the pay or conditions are unsatisfactory. They can’t leave for a new job unless it’s on a list approved by the Labor Department.

They cannot strike out on their own — the White House’s proposal explicitly forbids Y visa holders from working as independent contractors. And they will have trouble if they quit to look for a government-approved job because if they aren’t working, they have to leave the country. For these workers, "you’re fired!" or "I quit" basically means "you’re deported, too!" That keeps workers from demanding very much from their employers.

By embracing the very concept of "jobs Americans won’t do," this plan rejects basic economics and tilts the playing field toward employers. If the pay was high enough, almost any American would wash dishes or work in a meat-packing plant.

Wages are a price, and to get some work done, you might have to pay a higher price than you want to. "Jobs Americans won’t do" really means "jobs Americans won’t do for the low wages Big Business would like to pay."

The guest worker program — with all of its government restrictions and limitations — allows employers to pay wages lower than the free market would allow.

The guest-worker idea is not new. Variations on it are currently in place, and Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented a similar plan in the 1940s. Employers at the time understood the advantages of hiring foreign, temporary workers, who are in the country only at the employer’s pleasure.

One sugar farmer wrote to the Department of Labor explaining why he preferred Bahamian workers: "The vast difference between the Bahama Island labor and domestic, including Puerto Rican, is that labor transported from the Bahama Islands can be deported and sent home, if it does not work, which cannot be done in the instance of labor from domestic United States or Puerto Rico."

Indeed, in 1982, when guest sugar workers declined to work one day because the wages offered that day were too low, the federal government deported them the next day.

The guest workers are clearly vulnerable to exploitation under the current plan, but it also drives down wages for all workers. It’s easy to see why business likes this plan. It’s hard to see why Americans would.

Examiner columnist Timothy P. Carney is author of "The Big Ripoff: How big government and big business steal your money."

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