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Immigration Initiatives for Essential Workers
by Cyrus D. Mehta

In past articles we have been focusing on the provisions of the LIFE Act. As you have already realized, these provisions have limited applicability and do not legalize broad groups of undocumented workers who are long established in the U.S.

With the recently concluded meeting between President Bush and Mexican President Fox, immigration issues have suddenly come into sharp focus, especially over the urgent need to legalize the status of thousands, if not millions, of undocumented immigrants who may be less skilled but essential to employers and the economy. They are also vulnerable to abuses and exploitation because of their lack of immigration status.

There is a robust demand for low and medium skilled workers in the United States. This dynamic has led Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, business associations, and organized labor to call for an overhaul of U.S. immigration policies. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2008 America will have over five million more jobs than people to fill them, and that very large proportions of the newly created jobs will require only high school level education and modest training. Moreover, the baby boom generation will pass into retirement over the next fifteen years, and immigrants and their children will be needed to help pay the taxes that fund their retirement.

Various groups, including organized labor, are recommending measures that institute legalizing mechanisms for hard working, tax paying, and well established undocumented immigrants. This could be accomplished through a variety of means, including expediting backlogged family visas, expanding employment visas, developing earned or targeted legalization programs, and updating the registry date.

For instance, the current H-1B visa program only caters to highly skilled individuals who are being employed in specialty jobs that require the minimum of a bachelorís degree. Other than spouses, minor children and parents of United States citizens, all other family categories are backlogged by several years. Even the employment-based immigrant visa quotas for unskilled workers are very limited and backlogged by over four years. Finally, the registry date has been frozen at 1972, implying that those who came into the U.S. before January 1, 1972 can apply for permanent residency. Moves to advance the registry date to 1986 were scuttled in the last Congress.

At this point of time, there are limited options for workers who are essential to agriculture, the hotel and restaurant industry, construction, health care and many other important sectors of the economy. Likewise, it is virtually impossible for domestic workers who provide either child or elder care to enter the United States legally.

It is hoped that the recent meeting between Presidents Bush and Fox will provide the necessary impetus to develop viable programs for essential workers who have till now been ignored under our immigration laws.

While the Bush administration has been receptive to some of these ideas, it has voiced opposition to a broad amnesty program. However, the administration has expressed interest in various guest worker proposals. If guest worker programs are introduced, they should be designed to make sure that labor rights can be meaningfully enforced including visa portability, access to social and health protection and reasonable mechanisms for ultimately securing permanent residence for migrants who qualify for and choose to do so.

About The Author

Cyrus D. Mehta, a graduate of Cambridge University and Columbia Law School, practices immigration law in New York City. He is Vice Chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's National Labor Department Liaison Committee, trustee of the American Immigration Law Foundation and recipient of the 1997 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyers Award. He is also Chair of the Immigration and Nationality Law Committee of the Association of the City Bar of New York. He frequently lectures on various immigration subjects at legal seminars, workshops and universities and may be contacted at 212-686-1581 or

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