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

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“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.”

While both labor and management aim to claim the mantle of having such “market-driven” solutions to these inequities, how the two sides would get to such a system diverge sharply.

How business sees it

Commercial interests like Mr. McBurney's hotel industry, alongside the high-tech and agriculture industries, say that they should have largely unlimited access to certain categories of special workers: low-skilled seasonal employees, high-tech computer scientists, or agricultural workers, respectively.

Let corporations set the number of foreign workers they need, these advocates argue.

The Immigration Innovation Act, a bipartisan measure led by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota, shows how a system like this might work. The so-called "I-Squared Act" would, in part, allow visas for highly skilled workers (known as H1-Bs) to rise from the current 65,000 level to as many as 300,000 under one condition – corporate demand for such visas.

Alternatively, the government could hold a certain number of visas constant every year in each profession and allow companies to bid for visas beyond the regular allotment, suggests Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

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