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Immigration reform 101: Is a sensible guest-worker program possible?

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The number of temporary workers are now set predominantly by quotas that bump along at stable rates from year to year no matter the economic condition in the US. Critics of the current system say that this leaves worker shortages when the economy is surging and allows too many workers to enter the country when economic activity slackens.

Visa caps for temporary worker programs “don’t apply to reality,” says Shawn McBurney, a senior lobbyist with the American Hotel and Lodging Association. “The number of guest workers allowed in the country should be determined by the need of the economy and that really can’t be set by an arbitrary number.”

Labor officials agree. “The allocation of visas are currently arbitrary at best and entirely political,” says Andrea Zuniga DiBitetto, an AFL-CIO lobbyist on immigration issues. “There isn’t a look at true labor market needs.”

Labor officials also scowl at current temporary-worker programs because they believe the current system gives employers incentives to “cut corners” on worker rights and “cut wages” versus those paid to American workers, says Ms. DiBetetto.

Both sides largely agree that the system of legal immigration that took hold after the last round of comprehensive immigration reform in 1986 was dysfunctional and helped sow the seeds of today’s problem of illegal immigration.

“A mistake of the 1986 Act was that it did not provide for legal immigration at all skill levels, which would allow employers to fill the vacancies that they encounter after trying to recruit US workers,” said Randy Johnson, a senior vice president at the Chamber of Commerce who specializes in immigration issues, in an e-mailed statement. “Therefore these jobs went unfilled through legal programs and they became attractive to immigrants outside the country who came illegally to fill those jobs.”

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