Senate Dems to give federal commission say over legal immigrant workers

Janitors in Los Angeles hold a vigil in response to Arizona's law giving police new stop-and-search powers. Calls have increased for action on immigration-overhaul bills, but Congress probably won't take it up, or the commission idea, until after November's elections.
Janitors in Los Angeles hold a vigil in response to Arizona's law giving police new stop-and-search powers. Calls have increased for action on immigration-overhaul bills, but Congress probably won't take it up, or the commission idea, until after November's elections. (Mark Ralston/agence France-presse/getty Images)
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By Laura Litvan
Monday, May 24, 2010

Democrats crafting an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws are bringing a new approach to a long-stalled debate: giving a federal commission some power over the future flow of legal foreign workers.

Senate Democratic leaders are drafting a measure to authorize a commission to recommend levels of employment-based visas and green cards that let immigrants work legally in the United States. The plan would require Congress, in certain cases, to vote when immigrant labor is deemed out of line with demand. Although the commission would have limited influence over the skilled-immigrant market for technology and other industries, it would have a major role in regulating low-skilled foreign labor.

The idea is another example of lawmakers showing a willingness to relinquish decision-making to commissions on issues that include reducing the federal debt, Iraq war policy and curbing Medicare costs.

"It's the ultimate expression for the need for political cover," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.

It's also an idea that allows the Democrats, who control Congress, to show support for labor unions championing the proposal. Business groups, however, are concerned the commission would make it more cumbersome to use foreign labor.

"Traditionally, our levels have been set by law, and that's worked for us," said Ralph Hellman, top lobbyist at the Information Technology Industry Council, which includes Intel and Hewlett-Packard as members. "The commission has a lot of peril in it."

Labor unions say the approach can be flexible enough to satisfy business. Their key goal is a mechanism that helps ensure that use of immigrant labor doesn't rise to levels that hurt U.S. workers, said Ana AvendaƱo, an AFL-CIO official who focuses on immigration policy. "We don't want a detrimental effect on our economy or wages," she said.

Calls for action on immigration-overhaul legislation from Hispanic groups, unions and some lawmakers have increased since passage last month of a measure in Arizona that would require local police to determine the immigration status of anyone suspected of lacking proper documentation. Still, Congress probably won't take up immigration legislation and the commission idea until 2011, after November's elections.

The overhaul measure would secure the U.S.-Mexico border, create a temporary-worker program and forge a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.

The commission idea came from Ray Marshall, Labor Secretary under President Jimmy Carter. The United States needs a nonpartisan panel that would use "rigorous" data analysis in its decisions, Marshall said in an interview.

The commission plan emerged in December, when Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Tex.) included it in an immigration bill backed by the House's Hispanic and Progressive caucuses. That bill, stalled in the House, would establish a seven-member commission charged with preventing wage depression and job losses for U.S. workers. It would recommend to Congress and the president annual caps on all worker visas. Congress would have to act to prevent the limits from taking effect.

Legislation being drafted by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to take a different tack, said a Schumer aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The panel they envision would have a stronger role in deciding immigrant-worker levels in lower-skilled occupations -- such as hotel and restaurant jobs -- than in higher-skilled ones.


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