Low-wage worker advocates slam immigration overhaul’s visa plan

April 16, 2013

Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), right, is part of a bipartisan group of senators proposing legislation to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws. The group also includes, from left, John McCain (R-Arizona), Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey).

A proposed immigration overhaul that a group of U.S. senators including Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) introduced Wednesday is worrying some advocates for low-wage Chicago workers.

The advocates are pointing to a part of the plan that would bring foreign workers to the United States under a new program called the W Visa. The proposal, the advocates say, is short on resources for protecting the workers from wage theft, safety hazards and whistleblowing retaliation — problems that have plagued U.S. “guest worker” programs over the years.

“What part of the legislation provides 3,500 new occupational safety monitors and wage inspectors?” asked Arise Chicago organizer Jorge Mújica, referring to the number of new customs agents proposed by the bill. “The plan only talks about hiring for border control,” said Mújica, whose group focuses on workers at car washes, second-hand stores, embroidery shops and other sites. “So no one can guarantee protections for the workers.”

The W Visa program emerged last month from negotiations between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation. The program would admit up to 20,000 low-skilled foreign workers starting in 2015. The annual cap would grow to 75,000 by 2018. The number of visas would fluctuate, depending on data such as job openings and unemployment rates.

Employers say the W Visa would provide their first good mechanism for bringing in nonimmigrant workers for low-skilled jobs that are not seasonal. The industries could range from hospitality to meatpacking, laundries to home health care. The employers say they have a hard time finding workers already in the United States who are willing to fill certain positions and that raising wages to attract workers could put the companies out of business.

The bill would create a new agency, dubbed the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research, within the Department of Homeland Security to manage the number of workers who come annually. The agency would also handle complaints about employers.

In the negotiations, unions tried to limit any new influx of low-wage foreign workers into the U.S. labor market and to distance the W Visa program from an existing “guest worker” system that leaves many of the foreigners vulnerable to abuses.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says the W Visa will neither tie the workers to a single employer nor drag down the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. “We have created a new model, a modern visa system that includes both a bureau to collect and analyze labor market data, as well as significant worker protections,” Trumka said in a statement this month. “We expect that this new program, which benefits not just business, but everyone, will promote long overdue reforms by raising the bar for existing [visa] programs.”

But Leone José Bicchieri, executive director of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, predicts the Senate bill would let down the visa recipients.

“In my experience with agricultural guest-worker programs, you have all of these protections in place and on paper,” said Bicchieri, who worked for years as a farmworker organizer before joining the collaborative, which advocates for temporary workers. “Now imagine having hundreds of thousands of [W Visa] workers all across the United States. And these workers are not talking with [government] monitors every day. There’s not enough money to do that.”

“They’re talking with supervisors whose job is to make sure they pick the crop or cut the meat or clean the room,” Bicchieri added. “And these supervisors are constantly shouting at these workers, saying things like, ‘You better hurry up or this is the last time you’ll come back and work on any of these programs and I’ll make sure your cousins and any family member in your hometown never get accepted to come back.’ ”

Durbin’s office in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday did not comment on whether the W Visa program’s labor protections were sufficient.

Chip Mitchell is WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMitchell1 and @WBEZoutloud and connect with him through Facebook and LinkedIn.