By STEVE CALDEIRA & JERRY HOWARD
Based on media reports and politicians’ news releases, there is finally momentum in Washington for comprehensive immigration reform, something our respective organizations have long advocated. One component of the system under discussion is critical: a new guest-worker program that will facilitate a market-driven supply of essential, “lower-skill” workers. Without it, immigration reform would not be comprehensive, and it would not be true reform.
The businesses we represent serve as an important gauge of the nation’s overall economic health. When America’s 980,000 restaurants, 825,000 franchise establishments, 140,000 housing-industry members and the countless small business owners who rely on immigrant workers thrive, the rest of the economy grows along with it. That is why our associations have joined with ImmigrationWorks USA, a national organization dedicated to educating the public about the economic benefits of immigration reform. Policy makers need to ensure that employers have access to the workers who will enable them to grow—and to hire, in turn, more employees.
Today’s economy is dynamic. Bureaucrats in Washington cannot predict which business or sector will grow next, and comprehensive immigration reform should reflect this reality. Any immigration bill that creates a commission or bureau to determine visa quotas and decide which sectors deserve workers will always trail the ever-changing needs of a growing economy.
The existing visa programs are inadequate for the U.S. economy. For example, the H-2B guest-worker program is currently capped at 66,000 per year, a woefully low level. Not only are current visa allocations far too few, the program requires employers to submit applications to four government agencies and pay numerous fees. The program is also subject to constant bureaucratic changes.
Beyond creating a new temporary-worker program, securing the country’s borders and creating a pathway to legalization must also be a top national priority, as the bipartisan group of senators drafting immigration reform agree. The reforms should include common-sense legislation such as the “Legal Workforce Act” (H.R. 2885) introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas), in 2011. This bill would create a reasonable employment verification system (E-Verify) for the nation’s employers.
Elegant political deals, anchored by common principles agreed to by business and labor groups often at odds, may bring cheers in Washington. But the real key to success will be a final immigration measure that is comprehensive in nature. That would mean ensuring that the government isn’t put in the position of picking winners and losers, and that the legislation is appropriately aligned with the constantly changing needs of small and large businesses.
Thus a new visa program must give employers who rely on lower-skill workers the primary say in which workers they need to adequately staff their businesses. Leaving the decision to the federal bureaucracy invites trouble.
An employer’s access to lower-skill workers participating in the visa program should be triggered after a check with the domestic labor market. If Americans want the jobs that employers need to fill, they would be first in line to get them and there would be less need for foreign workers. But the need will always exist to some degree, and a guest-worker program that permits a market-based supply of lower-skill workers is essential.
Without such a program, no immigration reform bill will be worthy of the name. With one, the framework will be set to power the most prosperous economy in the world.
Mr. Caldeira is president and CEO of the International Franchise Association. Mr. Howard is CEO of the National Association of Home Builders. This article appeared on the WSJ on 4/3/13