In June, the Senate approved the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744). This landmark legislation is designed to fix the nation's broken immigration system and passed on a bipartisan vote of 68-32. Despite the relatively broad support for this bill in the Senate, the outlook for passage of this or similar legislation in the House is highly uncertain.
NRCA is pleased to see the Senate move forward on the critical immigration reform issue and has long supported reform that increases border security; improves workplace enforcement without burdening employers; provides an avenue for workers to enter the U.S. legally when needed; and addresses existing illegal workforce issues in a balanced manner.
NRCA believes the Senate bill generally is a good start. In particular, NRCA is pleased to see bipartisan consensus for a new temporary visa program that provides a legal avenue for businesses to obtain workers needed to meet demand. NRCA members prefer to hire U.S. workers, but experience demonstrates this is not always possible. As the economy improves, NRCA expects labor shortages in the roofing industry to become acute and sustained without a viable mechanism to allow workers from abroad to fill openings that otherwise will go unfilled.
NRCA supports a temporary visa program that protects U.S. workers, is governed by market forces and enables employers to obtain the workers needed to grow their businesses.
S. 744 contains a new W-Visa program intended to address employers' needs in lesser-skilled sectors of the economy, including roofing. However, NRCA believes the Senate bill is fundamentally flawed and will not resolve key problems that now plague our immigration system.
First, the W-Visa program size is woefully inadequate. At the request of organized labor, the bill drastically limits the total annual visas in the program in a manner that is clearly insufficient to meet forecasted demand. Any cap on visas must be aligned with market forces rather than micromanaged from Washington, D.C.
Additionally, the Senate bill places arbitrary limitations on the participation of construction industry employers in the W-Visa program. Again at the request of organized labor, which argues temporary workers are not needed given relatively high unemployment in construction, the number of visas for construction employers is capped at a maximum of 15,000 per year. In an industry that employs more than 5 million workers and hopes to grow as the economy recovers, this will virtually exclude most construction employers from the program.
The Senate bill fails to recognize the demographic factors limiting domestic labor supply in the construction industry, including an aging workforce, rising education levels among U.S. workers and the physically demanding nature of the work. Any temporary visa program with restrictions on construction industry participation is doomed to fail.
The current state
NRCA and allied construction associations explained their support of a workable temporary visa program and opposition to limitations on the construction industry to senators on numerous occasions as the legislation was developed and during its consideration by the Senate. However, it became clear Democrats, who have majority control in the Senate, as well as a few Republicans, do not believe guest workers are neededat least not during times of relatively high unemployment.
The fact remains our dysfunctional immigration system will not be fixed if it fails to provide an effective legal avenue for workers to come to the U.S. to fill job openings that cannot otherwise be filled. This was a key failure of the 1986 immigration reform law.
NRCA is working with House members to improve upon the Senate bill as they attempt to move forward on the issue this fall. A key group of lawmakers has struggled to agree on a comprehensive bill that can attain broad bipartisan support, and it is unclear whether such a proposal will gain significant support.
However, some progress has been made in the House. In June, two House committees approved several more targeted immigration reform measures, including bills to strengthen border security, expand visa programs for high-skilled and agricultural workers, and improve the employee verification system. Additionally, key committee members are drafting new legislation to establish a temporary visa program that treats the roofing and construction industries fairly.
NRCA will continue working with Congress on immigration reform legislation. But finding the right combination of bipartisan compromise to pass the House and Senate in the current highly polarized political environment faces daunting odds.
Duane L. Musser is NRCA's vice president of government relations.