Help Wanted as Immigration Faces Overhaul

Brett McMahon of Miller & Long, left, discusses immigration issues with engineer Ivan Perez. Perez has been in the United States for six years.
Brett McMahon of Miller & Long, left, discusses immigration issues with engineer Ivan Perez. Perez has been in the United States for six years. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By S. Mitra Kalita and Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 27, 2006

Year after year, Professional Grounds Inc. runs a help-wanted ad to find landscapers and groundskeepers. Starting wage: $7.74 per hour.

In a good year, three people call. Most years, no one does.

So the Springfield company relies on imported labor -- seasonal guest workers allowed to immigrate under the federal guest-worker program -- to keep itself running. For 10 months this year, 23 men from Mexico and Central America will spend their days mulching and mowing, seeding and sodding for Professional Grounds.

Occasionally, company President Bill Trimmer asks himself: If I doubled wages, would native-born Americans apply? He thinks he knows the answer.

"I don't think it's a wage situation. It's the type of work and the nature of the work. It's hard, backbreaking work," said Trimmer, who started the company 31 years ago. "I think we're a more affluent society now. They expect more. Everybody expects more. . . . I have contracts, and they want an affordable price, too."

Here lies the dilemma facing Congress as it attempts an immigration overhaul. Businesses say it is hard to persuade Americans to perform the unskilled jobs that immigrants easily fill. Significantly higher wages might work, but that increase would be passed on to unhappy consumers, forcing Americans to give up under-$10 manicures and $15-per-hour paint and lawn jobs.

Yet against a backdrop of heightened scrutiny of those who cross U.S. borders and the estimated 12 million migrants already here illegally, most everyone agrees that the current immigration system warrants a severe makeover.

A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that unauthorized immigrants make up nearly 5 percent of the labor force. In the Washington region, they make up nearly 10 percent of the 3.1 million-strong workforce, providing mainly unskilled labor.

The federal government has a work visa -- known as H-2B -- that aims to help unskilled migrants enter the country legally. But the government issues only about 66,000 new H-2B visas each year. The guest workers, who generally take jobs in businesses such as restaurants, amusement parks, cleaning companies and landscaping firms, are allowed to stay for 10 months.

The immigration measure passed by the House last year would allow the guest-worker program to lapse. Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee resumes debating legislation proposed by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). It would create a new guest-worker program that would allow foreigners to enter the United States for three years, with the possibility of renewal for another three years.

Both House and Senate plans place on employers the onus for verifying the legal status of workers with the creation of a national database of Social Security or work identification numbers. Besides requiring enforcement, the proposals would impose criminal penalties on employers who hire someone not authorized to work in the United States.

Under current law, companies must review two forms of government-issued identification to verify that a job applicant is a legal resident. Beyond keeping copies of IDs on file, many businesses say they do little more than take workers at their word. While some readily dismiss illegal workers, they don't necessarily report them and their whereabouts to the federal government.

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