Construction lobbyists fall short in push for more foreign workers

June 28, 2013

The sprawling Senate immigration legislation now headed to the House is packed with provisions designed to help businesses hire foreign workers, whether for computer labs in Silicon Valley, cruise ships docked in Florida and other U.S. ports, or seafood-processing centers in Alaska.

Yet in the frenetic push by K Street to cram in as many new guest-worker visas as possible, lobbyists for one industry came up short: construction.

While industry advocates say the companies will need to hire more than 200,000 new workers per year, under the Senate bill the number of foreign-worker construction visas can never exceed 15,000 per year.

The setback, unusual for an otherwise powerful special-interest lobby, reflects the political tightrope being walked by each party as leaders try to pass an immigration overhaul while balancing concerns from influential skeptics.

Construction lobbyists, unlike their brethren in a host of other industries, have been stymied by large numbers of lawmakers in both parties. Labor unions, who say high unemployment among construction workers belies industry claims about how many workers they need, are pressuring Democrats to oppose an expanded guest-worker program. And many conservative Republicans are wary of adding foreign-worker visas of any kind.


That odd coalition blocked the industry in the Senate, where efforts by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and a handful of other GOP lawmakers to undo the cap were defeated. And it leaves the industry little room to operate in the Republican-led House, where immigration legislation will need support from many Democrats and a large segment of the GOP to have any chance for passage.

“It’s the unholy alliance of the far right and the left,” said Geoffrey Burr, chief lobbyist for Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group with close ties to Republicans.

The industry has begun an aggressive push for new legislation with no special restrictions on construction jobs. Officials from Associated General Contractors, a large trade association, are planning to target key GOP members during the Fourth of July recess with phone calls and office visits to underscore the merits of the industry’s position.

House leaders have vowed to tackle immigration on a piece­meal basis, and Republican-drafted legislation has been rolled out in recent days focused on enhancing border security and adding high-tech workers.

A bipartisan group of House members seeking a compromise on immigration has failed to reach an accord on construction and other less-skilled worker visas. Two conservatives, Reps. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho) and Ted Poe (R-Tex.), are quietly drafting a measure that would give the industry closer to what it wants, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

But House Speaker John A. Boehner, who is seen by the industry as an ally, has largely deferred to Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who heads the House Judiciary Committee and has favored a more restrictive approach to immigration. Goodlatte has given no indication of what he would do on this issue. A committee staff member, requesting anonymity, was noncommittal, saying only that Goodlatte and others “welcome all ideas.”

Labrador acknowledged that the political cross­currents were presenting an unusual challenge in winning support for more worker visas.

“There is some resistance,” Labrador said in an interview. “If it were up to me, I would have an unlimited cap and a free-market wage system. But I know that is not going to pass, so I’m trying to figure out what the right formula is to get it out of the House of Representatives.”

Democratic lawmakers are proving an even less friendly audience to construction industry lobbyists.

That’s because the AFL-CIO, a key Democratic constituency, insisted on the strict limits on foreign construction workers as a condition for backing the broader immigration legislation.

The federation has been blamed for helping to thwart a 2007 overhaul effort amid concerns over allowing too many guest workers into the country.

This year, immigration advocates saw AFL-CIO support as a must to ensure the backing from a wide range of Democratic lawmakers. The federation’s president, Richard Trumka, stepped forward early as a champion of putting the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship and has voiced support for the Senate bill.

The AFL-CIO’s hard-line stance on construction visas came about after tension-filled internal discussions between the federation’s national leadership and the 13 construction-worker unions that operate as an influential bloc, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Many national union officials see an influx of legal immigrant labor as a pool of potential new members to bolster the struggling labor movement. But leaders of the construction-related unions signaled to Trumka and his aides that if a large guest-worker program was part of the Senate bill, the construction unions would have pressured the broader AFL-CIO to oppose the overall legislation, according to people familiar with the deliberations — a move that could have upended the entire Senate negotiation.

As a result, during months of negotiations with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ahead of the Senate debate, union officials demanded that any deal hold firm to a strict cap on construction-worker visas. The Chamber-AFL-CIO agreement, part of a larger discussion about low-skilled workers, became a key element of the final Senate plan.

The unions argued that the elevated jobless rate in construction — 16.1 percent when the negotiations began in January and 10.8 percent in May — undermined the industry’s position that it needed to bring in workers from other countries. Union negotiators also argued that their organizations seek to train construction workers through apprenticeships but that the industry’s desire to rely on low-wage labor undercuts efforts to draw more Americans into the workforce.

Industry officials “just don’t have facts on their side,” said Sonia Ramirez, the lobbyist for the AFL-CIO’s construction unions.

The issue of low-skilled foreign workers has been simmering for years. There is no year-round visa program for these positions, which also include jobs such as those for janitors, hospital aides, meat packers, hotel maids and restaurant dishwashers.

Advocates for expanding low-skilled visas say the lack of a year-round program is a primary cause for the presence of so many unauthorized immigrants.

Lawmakers said the limit on construction workers made sense because, unlike in other industries, Americans are still willing to work as, say, plumbers, electricians, blacksmiths or welders. One of the Senate negotiators, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), drew the distinction this week when Fox News Channel host Greta Van Susteren pressed him to explain the visa programs proposed in the legislation.

“Construction work is work that Americans will do,” Rubio said. “And so you probably don’t need as many guest workers for construction. And some people would dispute that, but for example, you probably have [more] domestic labor available for construction than you do, for example, picking tomatoes in a field down in South Florida.”

Industry officials and their allies say the strict visa limit would prove devastating. They argue that construction, which employs about 6 million people, is viewed as a key indicator of the health of the U.S. economy — and that labor shortages are already being reported in some places.

“I could use 15,000 in the state of Arizona right now,” said Connie Wilhelm, president of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona.

Wilhelm said her organization unsuccessfully tried to get help from the state’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of whom helped write the Senate bill.

Tamar Jacoby, who is president of the pro-business group Immigration­Works USA, called the cap on construction visas an “absolute guarantee” of additional illegal immigration. She said foreign workers would be drawn to the often-temporary but higher-paying openings at construction sites.

“The employers will try to stay on the right side of the law,” she said. “But there’ll be much more sophisticated forged documents. Who knows what people will come up with?”

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