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US Needs Visa Program For "Essential Workers"

by Bob Sakaniwa

One of the major failings of our immigration system is the "disconnect" between current policy and the reality of economic and demographic forces. While the immigration system is broken in so many different areas, nowhere is it more apparent than in the "essential worker" context. Essential workers, those that are employed in occupations in all sectors of our economy (e.g., restaurant workers, retail clerks, carpenters, plumbers, roofers, manufacturing line workers, hotel service workers, food production workers, landscape workers, truck drivers, and health care aides), are typically manual jobs that increasingly skilled and educated Americans no longer choose, yet are vital in keeping our economy growing.

The demand for essential workers is largely driven by economics and demographics. New immigrants are more likely to be younger than native-born workers, to have a high school education or less, and to participate in the labor force. And while the number of younger native-born workers with relatively little formal education is declining, the number of lesser-skilled jobs continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that during the 2004-2014 time period, the number of jobs in service occupations will likely increase by 5.3 million (19 percent). Under the current immigration system, there is no way to fill these job openings with legal immigrant workers because there are only 5,000 visas available annually for these types of jobs. Furthermore, it seems highly unlikely that our native-born population that is becoming older and better educated will be interested in filling these jobs.

So as the demand for more essential workers continues, there is a concomitant lack of sufficient visas available to foreign workers to meet this demand in these industries. The immigration system in this country must have a new, well-crafted visa program that would not only take pressure off our borders, but also benefit both American businesses and American workers.

To protect the interests of both American and immigrant workers, a new essential worker visa program would have to afford foreign workers all of the labor protections that U.S. workers enjoy, allow them to change employers, and provide them an opportunity to apply for legal status. Such safeguards are indispensable, for they not only protect immigrant workers from abusive labor practices, but also prevent employers from driving down wages for all workers by exploiting immigrant labor.

The current lack of legal channels for immigrants to fill our nation's essential worker needs has spurred some bad actors to profit from and exploit undocumented workers who have almost no meaningful legal protections. We need a fair and workable program that establishes a legal flow of new workers that would allow employers to hire the workers they need, protect American workers, and eliminate a major cause of undocumented immigration.

Reprinted with permission from AILA.

About The Author

Bob Sakaniwa is AILA's Associate Director of Advocacy.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

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