U.S. Guest Workers

Every year, there are about 75,000 guest workers with H-2A visa. But employers prefer about 800,000 of illegal workers over legal guest-workers, because they are cheaper to hire (Wall Street Journal Morning, podcast, 2-7-2008). 


The Bush administration, as leaving office, passed a last-minute rule that made it easier for farm employers to hire temporary/guest workers, legal and illegal. It took effect on January 17, 2009. Obama’s Labor Department suspended the rule for nine months arguing that the Bush rule led to lower wages for U.S. farm workers and didn’t protect American laborers. (“Rule easing farm hiring is suspended,” by Sara Murray, The Wall Street Journal, May 30/31, 2009, A2).



Tight market for farmhands

By Miriam Jordan & Mark Peters, Wall Street Journal, February 20, 3013, A3

Red Bryan says he has never seen a labor shortage like this in more than four decades as a berry farmer. "Labor is the No. 1 issue for agriculture," says the California grower. "It's not pesticides, water supply or land use. Without workers, we're out of business." Mr. Bryan, a partner in California Giant Berry Farms, which operates fields throughout the state, says he fears for the strawberry harvest getting under way.

The tight labor market explains why farm groups are pressing Congress to include, in any immigration overhaul, provisions that would ensure a steady flow of workers and prevent an exodus of newly legalized laborers from the sector. Under one possible scenario, agriculture workers would earn permanent legal residency by working a certain number of days on farms each year; those who worked longer would get a green card sooner.

The government estimates half of all field workers in the U.S. are illegal immigrants. Many farmers believe as many as eight out of 10 workers are undocumented, and say that despite relatively high unemployment in the U.S., they have seen little interest among native-born Americans to apply for the physically demanding and seasonal jobs.

Ahead of their coming harvest, many farmers are turning to a temporary agricultural visa, known as the H-2A program, which allows growers to bring workers into the U.S. for a short period. Growers have long avoided this program because it means they have to pay higher wages, housing costs and other expenses.

In North Carolina, growers are using the program to avert huge losses from not being able to pick tobacco—it can cost $3,000 to $4,000 an acre to grow—rather than to avoid fines for hiring illegal workers. "What's driving it is not a fear of enforcement, but a fear they're not going to have a workforce there when they need it," said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association, which handles visas for 750 farms.

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor show the number of positions requested through the visa program grew in the first three quarters of fiscal year 2012 by 8% from a year earlier to 74,889.

Many farmers say that to cope with the labor shortage last season, they offered higher wages, delayed pruning and harvesting, used mechanization if possible, or failed to harvest some of their crop.



Alabama immigrant law irks business

By Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2011, A5

An Alabama law to tackle illegal immigration is coming under fire from some business leaders in the state, who say the measure is undermining Alabama's economy even before it takes effect.

Representatives of agribusiness, the state's biggest industry, and sectors such as construction, which is charged with rebuilding the tornado-hit city of Tuscaloosa, are reporting worker shortages because of immigrants already fleeing the state. The state agriculture commission says squash, tomatoes and other produce are rotting in the fields.

"We have a big problem on our hands," said Brett Hall, the state's deputy commissioner for agriculture and industry. "Farmers and business people could go under."


Illegal Immigrants: 5% of the US workers

               Farming                                             24%

               Cleaning                                            17%

               Construction                                     14%

               Food preparation                            12%

(*Pew Hispanics Center Research, The Wall Street Journal, from NBC News, Meet the Press, 6-24-2007)



U.S. intensifies audit of employers

Enforcement activity during the Bush administration focused on high-profile raids in which thousands of illegal immigrants were arrested and placed in deportation proceedings. Relatively few companies and their executives were prosecuted.

The Obama administration has made employers the cornerstone of its immigration policy. "If we are going to have serious change, we must make sure the employer community is complying with the law," said Mr. Morton, referring to employers as the magnet that attracts thousands of illegal workers to the U.S. each year.

About 11.5 million illegal immigrants live in the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group. Without illegal immigrants, business executives in industries like construction, lodging and agriculture say they would be forced to radically change how they operate.

Few industries have come close to admitting they cannot survive without the labor of illegal immigrants as agriculture. At least half of the 1.8 million crop workers in the U.S. are undocumented. About 11.5 million illegal immigrants live in the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group. Without illegal immigrants, business executives in industries like construction, lodging and agriculture say they would be forced to radically change how they operate (“U.S. intensifies audits of employers,” by Miriam Jordan, The Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2009, A3). 



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High-Tech Visas (H-1B)

Skilled workers have the opportunity to gain High Tech Visas or H-1Bs. This program started in 1990, and allowed scientists, engineers, and technologists to be employed for up to six years. Then, they must gain permanent residency or return home. These temporary visas are for foreign workers who possess high tech skills or a skill in a special occupation. There is a limit of 65,000 visas granted per year in the U.S. Another 20,000 visas can be granted to immigrants who have advanced degrees

Employers seek H-1B visas on behalf of scientists, engineers, computer programmers and other workers with theoretical or technical expertise. At Microsoft, about a third of its 46,000 U.S.-based employees have work visas or are legal permanent residents with green cards, said Ginny Terzano, a spokeswoman for the company. "We are trying to work with Congress to get the cap increased," Terzano said.

Compete America, a coalition that includes Microsoft, Intel, Oracle and others, voiced its opposition to the visa cap in a statement Tuesday. "Our broken visa policies for highly educated foreign professionals are not only counterproductive, they are anti-competitive and detrimental to America's long-term economic competitiveness," said Robert Hoffman, an Oracle vice president and co-chairman of Compete America. 

The group's opponents say that increasing the visa limit would bring down wages and discourage American youngsters from pursuing technology careers. 

Last month, Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder, and other executives urged the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to lift the limits (Associated Press. 2007. “U.S. reaches limit for high-tech visas in 2008.” International Herald Tribune. April 4, 2008).



Tight US immigration forces outsourcing: Bill Gates

by Rob Lever, Agence France Presse, Yahoo News, Mar 12, 2008

US high-tech firms are forced to outsource jobs overseas because of immigration restrictions, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said Wednesday as Congress debated a visa program for skilled workers. 

Gates, echoing a longstanding complaint from the technology sector, told a congressional panel that the US immigration system "makes attracting and retaining high-skilled immigrants exceptionally challenging for US firms." "Congress's failure to pass high-skilled immigration reform has exacerbated an already grave situation," Gates said in remarks prepared for delivery to a hearing of the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee. "As a result, many US firms, including Microsoft, have been forced to locate staff in countries that welcome skilled foreign workers to do work that could otherwise have been done in the United States, if it were not for our counterproductive immigration policies."

Gates said the limits on so-called H-1B visas aimed at highly skilled professionals are far too low for the rapidly growing tech sector. He said the current cap of 65,000 H-1B visas "is arbitrarily set and bears no relation to the US economy's demand for skilled professionals."

The Microsoft founder noted that all the 65,000 visas for the current fiscal year were snapped up in one day last April and that employers are now waiting to apply for visas for fiscal 2009, starting in October. "Last year, for example, Microsoft was unable to obtain H-1B visas for one-third of the highly qualified foreign-born job candidates that we wanted to hire," Gates said.

"If we increase the number of H-1B visas that are available to US companies, employment of US nationals would likely grow as well. For instance, Microsoft has found that for every H-1B hire we make, we add on average four additional employees to support them in various capacities."

Launched in 1990, the H-1B visa program allows foreign scientists, engineers and technologists to be employed for up to six years, at the end of which they must obtain a permanent residency or return home. A large number come from Asia, especially India.

Although the tech industry has long pressed to ease visa limits, some labor advocates and other analysts argue the program depresses wages for the sector and that the worker shortage may be exaggerated.

Gates argued that the US economy benefits from these skilled immigrants. He cited a study that found that one quarter of all start-up US engineering and technology firms created between 1995 and 2005 had at least one foreign-born founder. "The United States will find it far more difficult to maintain its competitive edge over the next 50 years if it excludes those who are able and willing to help us compete," Gates said. "Other nations are benefiting from our misguided policies. They are revising their immigration policies to attract highly talented students and professionals who would otherwise study, live, and work in the United States for at least part of their careers."


Earlier this week, Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said the H-1B program was riddled with abuses and fraud and that he would vote for an increase only if it were accompanied by better enforcement. "The fact is most H-1B visas are going to foreign based companies," Grassley said in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security."Businesses that need highly skilled workers are getting the short end of the stick. Americans are seeing ruthless tactics by some companies to bring in foreign workers, pay them less, and increase their bottom line."


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US Banks Recruiting Foreign Workers

Twelve major US banks, which received more than $150 billion of government bailout, sought government permission to bring thousands of foreign workers into the country for high-paying jobs even as the system was melting down in 2008 and Americans were getting laid off, according to an AP review of visa applications. They requested visas for more than 21,800 foreign workers during the past six years for positions that included senior vice president, corporate lawyers, junior investment analysts and human resource specialists. The average annual salary for those jobs was $90,720. 

(“Probe: banks sought foreign workers,” by Frank Bass and Rita Beamish, Associated Press, Dayton Daily News, February 2, 2009, A6).