The comprehensive immigration reform bill being debated in Congress this year was marketed early as a bill of all bills – a holistic solution to big problems like terrorism, the status of some 11 million undocumented and America’s ominous federal deficit. It was also primed as a moment of truth for history’s most unpopular – and most partisan – Congress. A grand bargain on immigration could pave the way for other grand bargains and restore public faith in government. For Republicans, it could help reinvent their old white guy image, and for Democrats, solidify their power in the Senate and perhaps rehabilitate Obama’s lame presidency.
I worked on the immigration bill as a fellow in the office of Bernie Sanders, the “socialist senator” from Vermont. The longest-serving independent in US history, Sanders has managed to remain a wild card in this otherwise stacked deck – not just because he refuses to tow a party line but also because he has won seats in the House and Senate without pandering to big business. This year’s bill did not deviate significantly from the United States’ historical practice of shaping immigration policy according to the demands of economic development. But from Sanders’ perspective, it made no sense to expand guest worker programs at a time when so many Americans were beset by unemployment and foreclosure. Unless, of course, you were trying to exert downward pressure on wages – which is exactly what many of the corporate-led guest worker programs in Senate Bill 744 are designed to do.
Backed by the AFL-CIO, UAW and others, Sanders attempted to thwart Senate Bill 744’s race to the bottom by introducing three amendments – all of which lent voice to the millions of workers who stood to lose big if guest worker programs were expanded. To read his agenda as protectionist would miss the point – by defending domestic labor markets from saturation and unfair competition, he was indeed insisting on fair wages and working conditions for all workers, in and outside the United States.
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Number one among his amendments was a Youth Jobs Program, which would provide states with $1.5 billion of federal funding to support a two-year jobs program for economically disadvantaged youths. The program also made provisions to help participants get to work, since the problem of unemployment for many young people is exacerbated by the lack of available transportation, especially in rural areas.
To ensure that the program went through, Sanders cleverly positioned it as a second-degree amendment within a larger compromise on funding border security – a sacred cow of Senate Bill 744. This meant that the program would be safe unless negotiations on border security broke down, which was not likely. After the bill passed, right wing media and Tea Partiers like Rand Paul made laughable attempts to discredit the amendment, citing the “ObamaCar” conspiracy, and claiming that the program was mere “pork,” and had nothing to do with immigration.
In reality, however, Sanders had conceived of his youth jobs amendment as a companion to another, more obviously germane amendment to reform a dysfunctional J-1 program. In it, he proposed a revamping of the State Department’s Student Work Travel (SWT) Program, which provides visas to foreign students to work in low-wage jobs in the United States. The original intent of SWT was to give foreign university students a brief foray into American life by placing them in jobs for four months, with an additional month for travel. State provides oversight, and on the ground, the program is administered by dozens of “sponsors” who contract with employers and staffing companies to place the students. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, SWT sponsors collect student fees as high as $6,000, generating “well over $100 million in annual revenues for those organizations.”
Because other visa programs, like the H-2Bs for blue-collar workers, already were expanded in Senate Bill 744, Sanders argued that rendering SWT a pure cultural exchange, rather than a work program, would at least free up the 100,000 low-wage jobs being filled by J-1 workers on an annual basis. Of course, this flew in the face of J-1 employers, who complained that they not could find American workers to fill those positions. Because the State Department does not require them to conduct labor market tests to recruit domestic workers, it’s not likely they even tried – especially because hiring SWT workers on J-1s exempts them from paying a prevailing wage, as well as federal payroll taxes.
On other end of the equation, many of the foreign students in SWT have been getting an all-too-honest picture of American life. The Economic Policy Institute and Associated Press have documented a long list abuses in the program, including sweatshop working conditions and wages, indentured servitude and even sexual slavery.
Sanders’ third amendment focused on high-tech workers in the H-1B program, whose numbers are set to increase from 85,000 to more than 200,000 under Senate Bill 744. The bill also provides limitless green cards for master’s and doctoral students in STEM-related fields, which is sure to drive down the value of STEM degrees in the US at a time when the country was beginning to make real strides in STEM education.
One of the driving forces behind the expansion of H-1Bs was billionaire Bill Gates, who insisted in testimony before Congress that such a move was essential for attracting “the world’s best and the brightest.” Evidence from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), however, suggests that more often than not, H-1Bs are being used to fill middle-of-the-road positions that do not require high-level skills. In 2011, the GAO reported that 54 percent of H-1B guest workers were employed in entry-level jobs; and moreover, only 6 percent of them had highly specialized skills.
What’s worse, in 2012, the top ten employers of H-1B guest workers were all offshore outsourcing companies responsible for shipping large numbers of American IT jobs to India and elsewhere. American programmers, most of whom are freelance or contract workers, cannot compete with these big outsourcing firms; and the foreign workers they hire are limited in their ability to argue for higher wages or change jobs. According to Sanders’ top aid, Warren Gunnels, some employers were making American workers train their own replacements by holding hostage their severance pay, forcing them to “dig their own grave,” as he put it.
Such stories are all too familiar to me, as I’ve witnessed first-hand the disastrous effects of the H-1B program in my own family. Employed in IT in the early 1990s, my sister went from a six-figure salary and stable employment to essentially begging for temp jobs and eventually losing her home. Without a college degree and continuous reskilling, she was unable to compete with the slew of guest workers brought in on H-1Bs. After years of loss and precarious employment, she was hospitalized for depression – fully believing that her inability to find stable employment was a result of personal failure.
Sanders’ H-1B amendment sought to help people like my sister regain their dignity by prohibiting companies with mass layoffs from hiring H-1B guest workers. In the end, however, only his Youth Jobs program made it through. If the program survives the House, it will return much-needed jobs to unemployed youths in the country, many of whom have been displaced by J-1 and other programs. What it will not do, however, is cover the masses of people who, like my sister, stand to lose their jobs and homes – as well as their sanity – if Senate Bill 744 prevails.
Propagandists like Chuck Schumer like to tell us that immigration reform will serve as a conduit of the American dream for immigrants and non-immigrants alike. But this bill is just the latest in a long line of corrupt policymaking in which Congress continues to act as a fig leaf for base corporate interests. Truth is, global capitalist production can shuck many of its particular commitments to people and places at any time. If Congress really wanted to restore faith, it would enact immigration policies that facilitate a free flow of people around the world, in ways that promote freedom, cultural exchange and high standards of living. Not just for their respective “constituents,” but for all the people of the world upon whose labor they so desperately rely.