The AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce on Thursday released a set of immigration reform principles, and the press is calling it a breakthrough. But don't be fooled. The real story is that the backroom talks failed, and Big Labor is still holding out for a political commission to run any new guest-worker program.
Much of the current debate has focused on the country's 11 million undocumented residents, and we agree that a path to citizenship should be part of the solution. But to reduce unlawful entries going forward, a lightly regulated guest-worker program for low-skill foreign nationals is also essential.
The bipartisan Senate outline released last month calls for "allow[ing] more lower-skilled immigrants to come here when our economy is creating jobs, and fewer when our economy is not creating jobs." That's the right principle but it allows for lots of mischief in the details.
The Chamber and AFL-CIO have been trying to work out those details in private talks, but they have made little progress. Our guess is that last weekend's now famous White House leak about the President's immigration plan was intended mainly to muscle the Chamber. Mr. Obama's leaked outline didn't include a guest-worker program, which labor negotiators cited in urging business to drop or limit the idea.
Labor leaders have been insisting instead on a commission to determine when there are worker shortages that immigrants could fill. The commission, first mooted by Jimmy Carter's Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, would certify labor shortages and set annual limits for temporary work visas and green cards. The President and Congress would appoint its members, whose proposals would be binding unless Congress voted to reject them.
"It would be a data-driven system by an independent group that would decide if there are shortages and where they are," says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "The system that we're looking at would be planning ahead and would be able to predict where shortages would occur."
Note the words "planning ahead" and "predict." The U.S. labor market is a vast and varied army of 156 million people, and its composition and needs are constantly changing with the economy. Yet Mr. Trumka wants us to believe that a group of appointees in Washington will be able to know how many cherry pickers, construction workers or software engineers are needed in 2014. The Chinese Communists don't even believe they can do that anymore.
Economists don't have generally accepted measures to determine worker shortages overall, much less regionally, and the government data are unreliable or behind the curve. If you want to find out how many unemployed carpenters there are in Miami, the most useful figures are two years old. Only employers know how many workers they need, and they need to know they can get them when they need them.
Mr. Trumka wants a commission precisely because he knows it will never be "independent" in Washington. Its members will always be yanked by political pressure or ideological preference, and Mr. Trumka wants his union allies to control the commission and restrict the supply of immigrant workers. Big Labor talks a good game about solidarity with immigrants, but the reality is that unions don't want guest workers who compete for jobs.
To do any good, a guest-worker program needs to offer flexible visas of a reasonably long duration—preferably, several years. Workers shouldn't be hostage to any one employer, which would reduce the chances for exploitation and let workers compete for higher wages. Guest workers should also be able to jump between industries—say, from construction to hospitality to security, depending on the opportunities. The goal should be to let employers rapidly fill their needs while giving workers maximum opportunity to leverage their talents.
The Chamber-AFL-CIO statement on Thursday says that a program should be "market-driven," but then adds that it should "protect the wages and working conditions" of U.S. workers. No word on how it will do either one. In effect business and the unions are giving up and defaulting to Congress, where Mr. Trumka will use his White House ties to try to resurrect his commission or otherwise politicize any guest-worker program.
For Republicans, a flexible, market-driven guest-worker program should be part of their minimum requirements for an immigration deal. Such a program will help the economy, but it will also reduce the flow of future illegal immigration by giving foreigners legal avenues to work in America. It is the only border enforcement strategy that will work.
As for Mr. Obama, the question is whether he wants a bipartisan solution, or would rather use the issue to mobilize his base for the 2014 election. If the President wants an immigration reform to pass, he'll have to side with immigrants over the unions.
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