The vast majority of media attention on the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill has focused on three aspects: the legalization of illegal immigrants, the promise of future enforcement (and to what degree that promise will be broken), and the political fallout of the bill and debates about it. However, the Gang of Eight bill also makes far-reaching reforms to other aspects of the immigration system. Under the proposed bill, the nation’s guest-worker programs would be considerably expanded — and this expansion has major implications for the nation as a whole, especially its workers. This guest-worker program could have three big outcomes: bigger government, bigger downward pressure on wages, and bigger problems for the GOP and the future of conservative principles.
Under this bill, the three principal guest-worker programs would be agricultural, low-skilled labor, and high-skilled labor. According to Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, the U.S. already issues 700,000 guest-worker visas a year. Some of these visa-holders work in the U.S. for a short period of time, but others can stay for much longer. The Gang of Eight bill significantly increases the number of guest-worker visas. The annual cap on H-1B visas — meant for “high-skill” guest workers, especially those in technical fields — would immediately jump from 65,000 to 110,000. This new cap would be the floor for H-1B visa numbers in the future, and it would have the potential to rise in further years, all the way up to 180,000.
In addition to its revision of the agricultural guest-worker program’s rules, this bill creates a whole new program for “unskilled” guest workers: the W visa. The cap for the W visa bandied about in the media is 200,000 a year, but this provision could allow significantly more workers than that into the country. When dependents of visa holders are included, these two guest-worker programs alone could conceivably bring in over half a million individuals a year. At what could be the high end of estimates, Senator Jeff Sessions’s office has released a report suggesting that, all told, the Gang of Eight’s guest-worker programs could issue up to 25 million visas over the course of a decade.
Measuring the precise magnitude of this guest-worker expansion is hard because of the (perhaps deliberate) opacity and complexity of certain provisions of this bill. The loopholes matter a lot. Current H-1B law illustrates the power of loopholes. The cap on H-1B visas is commonly reported as 65,000 a year. But the law grants an additional 20,000 visas to holders of master’s or higher degrees, and current law does not count H-1B workers who work for certain nonprofit institutions against the cap. So even though the H-1B visa cap is officially 65,000 a year, about 136,000 H-1B visas were issued in 2012. Various loopholes will persist or expand in the Gang of Eight’s revision and expansion of the H-1B program. For instance, the exception for holders of advanced degrees is increased to 25,000, bringing the potential number of H-1B visa workers admitted to the country to over 200,000 (combining the new cap of 180,000 visas with the 25,000 visas for holders of advanced degrees).
Perhaps the biggest innovation of the Gang of Eight’s temporary-worker program would be its creation of the W visa for “low-skilled” labor, so it is worth paying particular attention to this part of the proposal. Holders of the W visa would be allowed to work in certain W-visa-designated jobs (such as retail and food service), and the visa could be renewed every three years. After employers fulfill certain conditions in terms of advertising a position, that position can become registered as a W-visa position, opening it up to workers who have a W visa.
In many respects, this provision takes a command-and-control approach to the nation’s work force. It creates a new bureau, the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research. This bureau would be responsible for monitoring unemployment levels in various metropolitan areas, evaluating job needs for various industries, and assessing wage rates for various workers. It would then use this data to calculate the number of guest workers purportedly needed for each year and to promulgate wage requirements for these workers. The cap for the number of new W-visa positions allowed in a given year is derived from a mathematical formula so complicated that it takes over three pages of the bill’s text to explain (pages 831–34 of the latest version of the bill, for those interested). This formula and the centralized federal bureaucracy would control the yearly influx of temporary workers. This aspect of the bill seems to indicate great faith in the power of central planning and government regulation to manage the economy.