Immigration reform

For years, those who did not want to deal with the question of how this country should react to the presence of about 12 million undocumented workers frequently said, with a dramatic sweep of the arm, let them return to their countries south of the border and get in line with everyone else.

With only a little thought, the issue has been clearly more complicated than that.

Reports coming out of Washington, D.C., substantiate that complexity, and offer some hope that at least a partial resolution is possible.

According to The New York Times, in a story Sunday, industry and labor leaders and a small group of senators are close to announcing a multi-faceted guest-worker program that will apply to low-skill immigrants such as in construction, food service and lodging. Companies, particularly small businesses, will get the labor they need, wages will be scored against a benchmark, and the program will be limited in size. Nor will nonimmigrant construction workers bear the brunt of the program: The number of visas for the construction trades will be controlled, and, in addition, some of the higher-paid positions – electricians for instance – will be excluded.

That summary gives a sense of the variety of forces at play, and why that sweep of the arm is a nonstarter.

Companies need the workers, especially in times of labor shortages, and small businesses (in this case businesses with fewer than 25 employees) are almost entirely nonunion and so will receive one-third of the visas annually. Labor groups do not want their members’ jobs to be put in jeopardy by workers earning significantly less, so a prevailing wage will be established. Nor do labor leaders want their members to lose their construction jobs, so no more than 15,000 of the maximum number of visas annually can be used in that industry.

The total number of visas annually for the first four years, in the agreement the Times reports is close to being announced, is 20,000, 35,000, 55,000 and 75,000. Beginning in the fifth year, the number would depend on the unemployment rate, with an absolute maximum of 200,000 visas.

It is expected that those visas will go to immigrants already in the country.

Twenty thousand, and then 35,000, for the first two years, are small numbers when it comes to the country’s low-wage job market. That indicates, it seems to us, a toe-in-the-water approach to the details of this new guest-worker program. But that is all right.

There are numerous components to the broader immigration issue and citizenship, from the need for low-paid guest workers to the desire to educate and retain talented professionals in the most technical fields. In between are issues such as what family members can accompany an immigrant, the desire to welcome those fleeing war-torn countries, and the adding and subtracting from a list of countries whose emigrants have special status.

The decisions are sometimes not entirely rational, and may not reflect what this country stands for. Immigrants who can invest several hundred thousand dollars in real estate qualify for citizenship in one program.

How to manage low-wage guest workers is a significant issue, and if Washington, in conjunction with industry, and labor is making progress on resolving that component of the immigration issue, that is good to hear.

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