How low-skilled guest workers could become citizens under ‘Gang of 8′ bill

April 29, 2013

Rogie Legaspi, a Baltimore public school teacher, has been waiting over 20 years for a green card. (Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post)

Among the more controversial aspects of the Gang of Eight immigration bill (now dubbed S. 744: Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act) is the creation of "W visas." Hashed out as a compromise between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, this program would issue guest worker visas for low-skilled workers, defined in the bill as those whose jobs don't require a bachelor's degree.

Workers would serve three-year stints, renewable indefinitely, and would be allowed to bring their families with them. The program sets a first-year cap of 20,000 for the program, but the agency running it would be allowed to increase that to as high as 200,000 per year.

That makes it a potentially huge source of future migration to the U.S., and raises the question of whether or not these migrants will be eligible for permanent residence (aka "green cards") or citizenship later on. Some visas, like the H-1B program for high-skilled workers, allow people to apply for permanent residency (these are called "dual intent" visas), but others, like the H-2A program for unskilled agricultural workers, don't.

At first glance, it looked like the bill ruled out permanent residence for W visa holders, and I said as much in our FAQ. But subsequent analysis suggests that was wrong. Why it's wrong is a little complicated, though.

The bill allows for roughly two tracks by which eligible visa holders can get green cards. The first establishes a point-based merit system for green card applicants. You get varying numbers of points based on how educated you are, what field you work in, what skills you have, what family ties you have in the U.S., and so forth. The second is intended to reduce the existing backlog of employment and family-based green card applications, as well as provide for people who've been in the U.S. for at least 10 years in some legal capacity.

The latter "long-term alien workers" channel is not open to W visa holders. Nor is the track two employment-based channel, which only applies to people in the U.S. before the bill's enactment, necessarily excluding W visa holders. But it appears that the other routes are, in fact, available to guest workers. W visa holders are not explicitly barred from accumulating points under track one, or applying under the family green card provisions of track two.

The bill leaves unsaid much more than it actually says on this topic, but Michelle Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute notes that it does actively change one statute in a way that suggests the authors want W visa holders to be eligible for green cards.

The bill, she notes, "amends section 214(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act so that 'W' visa holders (like current L, V, and H-1B visa holders) may file applications for adjustment of status (in other words, file for legal permanent residence) without US Citizenship and Immigration Services considering them to have abandoned their foreign residence for purposes of maintaining nonimmigrant status." That means that guest workers under the W program will be able to maintain their status while still applying for citizenship.

Whether that's a feature or a bug will vary on your overall views on low-skilled immigration. Restrictionists, of course, will take this as another sign that the W visa program is just another way for foreigners to stay here permanently. But those worried about the degree to which guest workers will be integrated into American communities should be heartened by this wrinkle, and those most concerned about the poor migrants who would be most affected by the legislation should be truly encouraged.

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Dylan Matthews · April 29, 2013