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"Guest Workers" and U.S. Unemployment

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Immigration reform this year is not just dead but rotting, despite the earnest efforts of talking heads on the left to create a buzz in recent days ("The Democrats standing up and fighting: immigration reform to be central to the midterms!" an ever-sanguine Keith Olberman said last week). Immigrants who expect a quicker path to citizenship anytime soon appear to be destined for disappointment.

This is a politics site, so here's some pure political calculus for you. Immigration reform doesn't energize the progressive base enough to compensate for how much it antagonizes center-right independents. Sixty-six percent of recent online poll respondents (Angus Reid, Summer 2010) said they'd support a law like Arizona's in their state, requiring their own police to determine people's citizenship status if there was "reasonable suspicion" the people were illegal immigrants. A nearly equal percentage supported arresting those people if they couldn't prove they were legally in the United States.

Why? The same poll gives us the likely answer. Six out of ten Americans think that immigrants take jobs away from those born in this country. And with unemployment hovering around 10 percent, with 14.9 million Americans out of work, isn't some enlightened xenophobia called for? Probably not. But it is understandable, given our unemployment rate.

In a recent Washington Post column, Ezra Klein makes the case that more immigrants means more workers and more workers means more economic growth. It's the same argument touted by the powerful and relentlessly on-point U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the U.S.'s largest lobbying groups and the voice of American business interests on Capitol Hill. Not known for bleeding-heart positions, the Chamber has been demanding an accelerated path to citizenship and an expanded guest worker program for years.

Why is there still demand for foreign labor despite so many Americans looking for work? Well, maybe the Chamber does hope, as some anti-immigration activists suggest, that a greater labor supply will depress wages and save its members money. That's in their interest, no doubt. But they insist, and there is evidence to suggest, that foreign labor is an immutable fact of our economy. It's not a question of if they come, but how. There are some jobs that American citizens don't apply for or leave quickly if they do.

HDNet's Dan Rather Reports journalist Robin Stein spent the last several months fighting to wrest data from various government agencies about a program that's often considered to be the prototype for the guest worker system of the future. It's called the H-2B guest worker program, named after the visa U.S. companies now use to bring in foreign workers to do temporary jobs they say they cannot fill with Americans.

Getting H-2B visas involves a multi-step application process that prevents -- at least theoretically -- employers from replacing American workers with lower-paid foreign labor. Companies must attest that the jobs are temporary and that they've tried and failed to recruit American workers (by putting want-ads in local newspapers and State Workforce Agencies). Employers must also pledge to pay their H-2B workers whatever the Department of Labor determines to be "prevailing wage" for that job -- namely the market rate local workers are earning. For example, a hotel in Orlando, FL must pay an entry level H-2B housekeeper no less than $8.07/hr but the same job in Las Vegas, NV has an hourly rate of $10.23.

In practice, critics say -- and the Obama administration agrees -- that the rules are riddled with loopholes and the enforcement is virtually non-existent. Still hiring an H-2B worker entails more time and money than hiring an illegal foreigner or an American worker.

And yet according to federal data for the first half of fiscal year 2010, companies in metro St. Louis -- where unemployment is 10.1 percent -- claimed to have no choice but to resort to foreign guest workers to fill 1793 jobs. Businesses in Chicago, with 10.5 percent unemployment had 639 jobs that were approved to go to H-2b workers. Even in Detroit with its 15.2 percent unemployment 249 jobs apparently had no takers.

All in all, companies have applied for H-2B workers to fill 1.3 million jobs over the past 10 years. Those are just one class of legal guest workers; and of course there are the millions more foreigners -- an estimated 8.3 million -- who work illegally in the United States on any given day.

The federal numbers gathered by Dan Rather Reports about 10 years of H-2B applications from U.S. businesses are a remarkable snapshot of work done out of sight of middle-class Americans. H-2B workers muck our stables (47,000 guest workers requested) and shuck our shellfish (15,000). There were nearly 40,000 H-2B jobs in circuses and amusement parks, nearly 150,000 in housekeeping, and almost half a million in landscaping,

These are the support jobs of the new low-pay, streamlined American service economy we claim to want to train our own children to inhabit. Though some economists say it would be better for the American economy to return to "making" and not just "doing," those decisions need to be made at the level of economic policy, not immigration policy.

In our story, we travel to Cape Cod, MA and Orlando, FL and learn the personal stories of people on all sides of this difficult question -- employers, American workers, and the immigrants themselves. We see the suffering and catch-22s created by American immigration policy and begin to think about what we might do to fix it and start a conversation that's well overdue, hoping to prop it along.

In order to give the public an easy way to search the federal data of companies that have applied for H-2B guest worker visas from 1999 through June 2010 Dan Rather Reports created this on-line database and asked PolicyMap to create this interactive map.

Dan Rather Reports airs Tuesdays on HDNet at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET. This episode is also available on iTunes.

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