When considering the prospects of new immigration legislation from Congress aimed to modernize the system or address legalizing the millions of individuals out of status over the past few years, many of us have felt like Charlie Brown trying to kick a field goal. Time and time again we’ve been disappointed when Lucy pulled the ball away.
Discussion of immigration reform has been incessant since the last “major” revision to the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1996. The first version of the DREAM Act was introduced in Congress in 2001, but despite reintroductions and revisions, it has never made it to the Oval Office for signature. Six years later, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 was introduced in the Senate but failed to materialize support to bring about an up-or-down vote. Indeed, for the past decade, only relatively minor piecemeal legislation and Executive Branch policies revising enforcement priorities have been the headline-grabbing changes to the system.
But this year (and this Congress) is shaping to be quite different.
News broke Friday night that the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce reached a deal on a new relatively lower-skill “guest worker” visa, presumptively dubbed the W-visa. Led by the so-called Senate bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” the two constituent groups have reached a preliminary deal which allows workers the opportunity to receive employment-authorized visas without depressing U.S. workers’ wages. For years the lack of a consensus as to a visa category which allows those to take jobs in the service industries and agriculture – which some say is a major driver of illegal immigration – has stymied comprehensive reforms notwithstanding a broader consensus on legalization and increased enforcement.
The agreement reached by the two groups sets forth the following general provisions:
- The volume of W-visas will be capped, yet fluctuate from year to year in response to the economy. The first year, slated to begin in 2015, will cap W-visas at 20,000. The numbers will then increase to 35,000 in the second year, 55,000 in the third, and 75,000 in the fourth.
- In the fifth year, the number of W-visas will be capped at a maximum of 200,000 but the actual number available to employers will be determined by a new Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Conditions, relying upon on labor market data. For instance, if economic indicators are weak, there could be as few as 20,000 W-visas in any given cycle.
- Similar to the H-1B, W-visa employers will need to comply with wage restrictions that require them to pay the greater of 1) the actual wages paid by an employer to U.S. workers with similar levels of experience in similar positions, or 2) the “prevailing wage” determined by the Department of Labor for the occupational category in question.
- However, unlike the H-1B, the W-visa is not temporary, but transitional. Beneficiaries will have the ability to self-petition for Green Cards after a year. Furthermore, the W-visa will not be tied to a single, discrete employer, allowing workers to leave abusive businesses.
- W-visa workers will be protected by state and federal employment laws. W-visa beneficiaries cannot be used by employers who have laid off workers within the preceding 90 days, and those enduring a strike or lockout.
This new agreement, forged in principle between two groups which historically have not seen-eye-to-eye, evidences a strong break in past failures to bridge the gap between organized labor and business on this hot-button issue.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle have expressed optimism that comprehensive legislation will soon be introduced. On Sunday, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told NBC’s Meet the Press that he is “very, very optimistic” that the group of lawmakers will have a deal this week and that legislation could be introduced as early as the next. Another Member of the Gang of Eight, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), told CNN’s State of the Union that “[C]onceptually, we have an agreement between business and labor, between ourselves.”
But don’t pop the champagne quite just yet. Members have cautioned that while there may be an emerging agreement for the basic principles behind Comprehensive Immigration Reform, legislation has still yet to be drafted. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) cautioned to the Associated Press that “[A]rriving at a final product will require it to be properly submitted for the American people’s consideration, through the other 92 senators from 43 states that weren’t part of this initial drafting process.”