The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘This is a massive effort to attract cheap labor.’ Why Sen. Bernie Sanders is skeptical of guest workers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at a Back Off Social Security rally on Capitol Hill. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Sen. Bernard "Bernie" Sanders (I-Vt.) is the junior U.S. senator from Vermont. We spoke on the phone Friday afternoon about his views on the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that is pending in the Senate. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Dylan Matthews: In 2007, you had some concerns about the immigration bill being weighed by the Senate, and voted against it. Now that the new Gang of Eight bill is out of committee, what do you make of it?

Sen. Bernie Sanders: Thanks for calling. Let me just say this. I'm a strong supporter of immigration reform, and of the need to provide a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. I very strongly support the DREAM Act, and will continue to strongly support it. I very strongly believe, as someone who knows what's going on in the dairy industry in Vermont, that there's no question we need to create a status for immigrant workers in agriculture, and I think the committee is making good progress there.

My concerns are in regards to where we stand in terms of guest workers programs, made worse by amendments offered by Senator Hatch. What I do not support is, under the guise of immigrant reform, a process pushed by large corporations which results in more unemployment and lower wages for American workers.

As you well know, we remain in the midst of a severe recession. Real unemployment, once you consider people who've given up looking for work, is close to 14 percent, and in some parts of the country is even higher. For minorities it's very high, and we've got to address that. You have massively high unemployment for young people, yet we're talking about expanding visas so that young people from abroad can serve as life guards, become ski instructors, become front desk people, when young people in this country desperately need jobs to pay for a college education.

I am aware that there may well be certain high-skilled jobs in specific areas in high skilled technical industries that American companies are finding it hard to fill. I find it hard to understand that, when nine million people in this country have degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, only about three million have jobs in these areas.

Furthermore, as someone who was led to believe that what economics was about was supply and demand, if you need workers in a certain area, you need to raise wages. I have a hard time understanding the notion that there's a severe need for more workers from abroad when wages for these jobs rose only 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2011. You see stagnant wages for high skilled workers, when these companies tell you that they desperately need high skilled workers. Why not raise wages to attract those workers?

The bottom line is that I feel, very much, that a lot of the initiative behind these guest workers programs, a very large expansion of guest worker programs — H2B visas would go up to as many as 195,000, H1B to as many as 205,000 a year — is coming from large corporations who want cheap labor from abroad. Absolutely, there is a need for foreign labor. I recognize that in agriculture and certain areas in the high tech industry, you need foreign labor. But this is a massive effort to attract cheap labor, a great disservice to American workers.

What do you make of the W visa program for low-skilled workers that came out of a deal by the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce?

I want to take a harder look at that. But again, look, when you have very high unemployment rates for low-skilled workers in this country, for kids who graduate high school, I'm very dubious about the need to bring foreign unskilled labor into this country. These are kids, young high school graduates, and the unemployment rate is just extremely high. I do not understand why they cannot hire those people and need foreign labor.

There are areas when you do need foreign labor. Here in Vermont, while I wish it were the case that kids would go into dairy, they do not. That's true in many areas, all over the country. I think there are clear examples, but they have been multiplied many times over by large corporations at the expense of the American workers. I'm very dubious of whether you need hundreds of thousands to come in right now when unemployment is so high.

The bill does create an agency to monitor labor market demand and make sure there are Americans who could be doing these jobs. What do you make of that?

Of course that's a step in the right direction. It's a very important issue. I am sympathetic to an employer who says, "Look, I have reached out, I have done everything I can in my community to find an American worker. I've done this and that, and I cannot find people who want to do that work."

Is that true in some businesses? I think it is. What we must demand is that the employer make a thorough search. What I am not sympathetic to is employers who do not reach out in any serious way.

What you're talking about now is an effort to try to monitor what the employment situation is. A couple of years ago, I believe it was Exxon Mobil that said they could not find American welders. I don't believe it. I think in some instances, the complaints of the corporate world may well be true. In many instances, they're not, because they're not aggressive in reaching out to workers, or paying the wages they demand. Again, if there's such a crisis, why haven't wages gone up?

One counterargument to that view which I've heard is that, while high-skilled wages haven't risen that much in absolute terms, this is in a context where the average American worker, as you're well aware, is seeing wages stagnate, if not fall. So in relative terms, wages for these workers are going up.

Again, if there is this great crisis which I am hearing about, that the American economy absolutely depends on having more high-tech workers, then the law of supply and demand is that when you need something, you pay for it, right? Didn't you learn that in elementary school?

What matters is that there's a variety of reasons that the middle class in this country is disappearing. Real wages of millions of workers have gone down. For corporations to say, "Here's what's going on in other areas," doesn't answer the question. If you want high-skilled workers, you need to wage raises. But if you want cheap labor, you bring in workers from abroad.

I know in committee your colleague Senator Leahy (D-Vt.) was concerned about making sure Vermont's border with Canada was still readily crossable. Are you happy with the way the bill turned out there?

Where I am now — I'm an hour away from the Canadian border. At Burlington Airport, 25 to 50 percent of the cars are from Quebec. We have a very strong relationship with Canada. Many people in Vermont come from a French Canadian background, there's lot of commerce between them and the state, and we don't want to see impediments to that. We want strong security, we understand that, but we do not want impediments to commerce. We've made progress on that.

What do you make of the exclusion of visa eligibility for binational LGBT couples?

That concerns me as well. I would have preferred to see that.