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THE LABOR DEBATE

General manager Keith Overton never considered hiring immigrants to work at the TradeWinds Resorts on St. Pete Beach until a labor shortage hit in the late 1990s.

Overton turned to other countries for help. He never stopped.

Today, the 796-room hotel contracts with a company to bring in about 70 workers from all over the world, including South Africa, Jamaica, Romania and the Netherlands, to wash dishes, clean rooms, do laundry.

"Employment is our No. 1 problem," said Overton, who has managed the largest hotel on the west coast of Florida for more than a decade. "We need people so desperately. We don't have a choice."

Thousands of employers across the nation, including the TradeWinds, use the United States' guest worker programs to hire low-skilled workers directly from foreign countries despite a litany of complaints about the cumbersome process and unreasonable enrollment caps.

Others have given up and instead take their chances hiring immigrants off the street who may have paperwork that's not legal.

Like much of the nation's immigration laws, the guest worker program draws plenty of controversy. Proponents, including many Republicans and their allies in business, see it as a necessary supply line for the nation's labor force. Opponents say it's just a foot in the door for foreign workers who take jobs from Americans and never leave.

As debate resumes today in Congress on an overhaul of those laws, expanding and simplifying the guest worker program may now be something that the House and Senate can agree to do.

The Senate will begin debate today on a wide-ranging bill that would give many of the nation's 12-million illegal immigrants, including 500,000 in Florida, a chance to stay in the United States and become guest workers. It also would simplify program requirements, allow more immigrants to come temporarily and, most significantly, introduce a new category of guest workers made up of nonseasonal, low-skilled employees.

President Bush, who has insisted that any immigration bill should include a guest worker program, will address the nation tonight as he tries to build momentum for immigration reform.

The House already passed an enforcement-focused bill that would tighten border security and aggressively deport illegal immigrants. But in recent weeks, House Speaker Dennis Hastert gave the guest worker program a boost when he indicated his chamber would consider a bill with temporary workers.

"We're going to look at all alternatives," said Hastert, an Illinois Republican. "We're not going to discount anything right now. Our first priority is to protect the border. And we also know there is a need in some sections of the economy for a guest worker program."

The huge national business coalition that has been lobbying to expand and improve the guest worker program for years sees this year as the best chance for reform.

"This is as close as we've gotten to major comprehensive debate," said Laura Reiff, an immigration attorney at Greenberg Traurig and co-chairwoman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition. "We're going to get it done. We're on the verge of something major."

Guest worker programs in the United States have been around for decades but were not used much until the late 1990s, when the nation began to suffer a labor shortage.

David Whitlock, an immigration attorney at Fisher & Phillips in Atlanta, said he advised his employer clients not to use the guest worker programs because they were too much of a hassle.

The federal government - through the departments of Labor and Homeland Security - issues up to 66,000 nonagricultural H2B visas each year. The federal government certified the need for 87,000 at businesses' requests last year, but the cap prevented more from coming in. An unlimited number of agricultural H2A visas are allowed. Last year, 32,000 were issued.

Both types of visas are supposed to be for seasonal workers only, and workers must return to their native countries before they are allowed to come back for another season of work.

Employers complain that the nonagricultural visas take months to get, while the agriculture visas are too complicated - hundreds of pages of regulations call for dozens of steps - and require employers to pay for transportation and housing.

"It's too much for agriculture employers," said John Young, of the New England Apple Council and of HELP (H2A & H2B Employer Labor Programs), which helps employers around the nation find foreign labor. "Unless you're doing it every day, it's too much."

H2A and H2B workers make up a fraction of the legal immigrant work force. Some other guest workers come into the United States on work study programs, seeking asylum or on their own in some other way.

A proposed new category of guest workers would allow 325,000 immigrants a year to come into the United State for nonseasonal, low-skilled work for up to three years.

But opponents argue that temporary workers are already taking jobs away from Americans, and the nation needs fewer such workers, not more.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, said the nation's labor market would adjust if temporary workers were forbidden from coming to the United States.

"There is no excuse for ever having them," he said of the guest worker programs. "We should abolish them."

Supporters argue immigrants are taking jobs Americans don't want. Estimates from the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition show that 13 categories of jobs would have been short more than 500,000 workers during the 1990s without recently arrived noncitizen immigrants even if all unemployed Americans with recent experience in those categories had been rehired.

Much of the congressional debate has focused on assertions that guest workers come to the United States and then overstay their visas.

"They all get to come here and they all get to stay as long as they want to and on a path to citizenship, virtually every one of them," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who opposes the Senate legislation. "So these are not temporary workers."

The Senate proposal calls for allowing illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for five years or more to apply for a three-year guest worker visa that could be renewed. If certain requirements are met after six years, they could apply for permanent residency, the first step toward citizenship.

But a new proposal by Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas would require guest workers to return home and not be eligible for permanent residency or citizenship.

"I would say that the best guest worker program is no guest worker program," said Barry Chiswick, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who testified at a recent Senate hearing.

"One of the maxims in the immigration research field is that there is no such thing as a temporary worker. The issue arises when the temporary contract, when the guest worker period is over, how does one get them to leave the country?"

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0576.

AGRICULTURAL AND SEASONAL VISAS

The number of immigrants on agriculture visas in the United States:

1990 5,318

1991 6,847

1992 6,445

1993 7,243

1994 7,721

1995 8,379

1996 11,004

1997 16,001

1998 22,676

1999 28,568

2000 30,201

2001 31,523

2002 31,538

2003 29,882

2004 31,774

2005 31,892

The number of immigrants on seasonal visas in the United States:

1990 11,843

1991 14,573

1992 12,552

1993 9,641

1994 10,400

1995 11,737

1996 12,200

1997 15,706

1998 20,192

1999 30,642

2000 45,037

2001 58,215

2002 62,591

2003 78,955

2004 76,169

2005 87,492

Note: The number of immigrants using seasonal visas is capped at 66,000. These are the numbers of those certified by the federal government based on businesses' requests but not the number that were brought into the country.

Source: U.S. Department of State

WORKERS ROOTS' SPREAD WIDE

Top 10 native countries for immigrants on seasonal agriculture visas in 2005:

Mexico 28,563

South Africa 1,247

Peru 687

Thailand 374

New Zealand 180

Romania 150

Nicaragua 130

Australia 114

Guatemala 87

Chile 57

Top 10 native countries for immigrants on seasonal non-agricultural visas in 2005:

Mexico 60,259

Jamaica 8,507

Guatemala 3,681

South Africa 1,519

Great Britain 1,326

Australia 1,120

Brazil 1,077

Romania 980

Dominican

Republic 757

Costa Rica 724

Note: The number of immigrants using seasonal visas is capped at 66,000. These are the numbers of those certified by the federal government based on businesses' requests but not the number that were brought into the country.

Source: U.S. Department of State

WHAT'S NEXT

The U.S. Senate will resume debate on its immigration legislation today and expects to pass a bill within two weeks before Memorial Day. The U.S. House passed a different immigration bill in December. The two chambers hope to work out a compromise this summer.

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