The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) has been a longtime advocate of reforming our country’s immigration laws. The reason is simple—it is in the best interest of our industry, our economy, and our nation.
Current immigration policies are irrational, unenforceable, and have created a border that cannot be protected adequately. Rather than staying with the current situation (it can hardly be called a “system”), immigration policies should accomplish three objectives: strengthen our national security, reinforce the rule of law, and ensure the economy has access to labor to ensure its growth.
Although our economy is currently struggling, it will not remain so. Two years ago our economy was strong. The national unemployment rate was at 4.7 percent—which most economists agree was full employment—with labor shortages in many sectors, including the lodging industry. Our economy will recover and we will once again be faced with finding enough workers to fill the jobs that will fuel economic growth.
The recent enactment of Arizona’s new immigration law further underscores the need for reform of federal policies. Without federal immigration reform, it is likely that businesses will be faced with a patchwork of conflicting state immigration laws that may not even be constitutional.
Even under the best circumstances, efforts to reform the immigration system would be difficult. However, there are several factors today that compound those difficulties. First, our economy is struggling to recover and Americans are grappling with a massive 10 percent unemployment rate. Second, the AFL-CIO reversed its previous position on immigration reform and now opposes a future flow program for workers. In its place it advocates creating a “commission” that would control the number of visas issued in every category, which would politicize a process to determine the economic need of businesses. Finally, 2010 is an election year—never a good time to tackle a difficult legislative issue and come out with rational policy.
Despite those daunting challenges, Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recognized the need for reform and have been working for months to craft legislation that would reform our immigration policies to secure our borders, create an effective worker verification system, identify and check current undocumented workers, and create a “future flow” system where employers have access to international workers when no U.S. workers are available.
AH&LA, along with other business groups, worked with the senators and their staffs to help them craft policies that took our interests and concerns into consideration. They also met with organized labor and immigrant rights groups. The senators also spoke to their colleagues in the Senate on both sides of the aisle in order to establish initial bipartisan support for the proposal. The hope was that these efforts would bridge the differences that currently exist and create a bipartisan bill with a reasonable chance of enactment.
Unfortunately, election year politics is encroaching on good policymaking. Rather than waiting for the results of the Schumer-Graham approach, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sens. Schumer, and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) recently released a 26-page conceptual framework for comprehensive immigration reform, without any Republican support.
The framework contains the basic elements needed for successful reform: increased border security, enhanced employment verification, a process to handle current undocumented workers, and a future flow worker program.
Unfortunately, the proposed framework is vague on details. It must be clarified that employers should determine what and where workers are needed rather than the government. While there should be safeguards against displacing any American worker, the government does not have the capacity to know which businesses have a need for what kind of workers in specific jobs. Another issue is language that would make employers liable for the actions of any of their subcontractors.
Most troubling in the proposal are references to provisions that they envision for the new future flow program and the existing H-2B program. Rather than simply renewing the H-2B returning worker exemption, the proposal would create several new hurdles for employers in trying to obtain temporary workers through the program. An exemption for returning workers would only be permitted if the national unemployment rate was less than eight percent or if the local unemployment rate was less than six percent. In addition, it would significantly increase the wage rates that employers must pay to their H-2B workers, would give “aggrieved workers” the right to file civil actions against employers, and would require employers to notify the Department of Labor (DOL) within 30 days of an H-2B employee’s termination and submit to DOL payroll records showing that the employer paid the required wage, transportation costs, and other expenses.
While it is encouraging that steps are being made to address this daunting problem, it should be done in a balanced, bipartisan approach. AH&LA will continue to work with Congress and the Obama Administration in developing legislation that best reflects our national interest and the needs of the lodging industry