Last week, the Obama Administration reiterated its commitment to enact comprehensive immigration reform during the first year of the new administration. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that a coalition of unions have agreed to support the Administration’s initiative, joining the business community and the Chamber of Commerce, who have long supported immigration reform. Of course, with immigration reform, as with other contentious legislation, the devil is in the details, and different advocates define immigration reform differently.
The Unions, Chamber of Commerce and the Administration agree that key elements of reform will include a reduction in the excessive backlogs for permanent resident status in both the employment and family based application tracts. There also appears to be an agreement coalescing among the interested stakeholders that will include a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
Labor and the business community disagree, however, on the role of temporary workers, often called guest workers, in the immigration reform package. The business community views temporary professional personnel with H-1B and L-1 visas as a necessary source of talent for technology, engineering, research and development. Many of the individuals shut out of the United States by the limitation of temporary visas are highly skilled graduates of the American universities in engineering, business, science, technology and math. Business also sees the guest worker programs known as H-2A (agricultural) and H-2B (non-agricultural) visas as filling a need in shortage occupations where American workers are not available. The temporary visas are opposed by labor, who see foreign workers as competition for scarce jobs in a recessionary economy. The political battle lines will likely be fought on the question of whether temporary workers are viewed as necessary fuel for economic growth, or whether the pool of jobs in America is seen as a zero sum game, and need to be protected for the unemployed American worker.
There has been widespread agreement over the past several years that the immigration system is badly broken and in need of repair. The formula for repair remains a contentious and emotional issue in American politics. However, the agreement of key elements of immigration reform by the Administration, labor and management suggest that it is possible to enact some form of reform in the near term. The one certain observation in the world of immigration reform is that the next year will be interesting. For those interested, the Immigration Policy Center regularly publishes interesting policy analysis on the economics and politics of the immigration debate.