Plan Targets Worker Shortage

But “non-immigrant’ visas not a cure-all

Broadmoor hotel manager Bob Keesler relies on foreign-born
workers to fill 35 percent of the jobs at his complex in Colorado

He’s still posting 190 openings, which he says U.S. citizens
ignore. His $8-an-hour maids from abroad each already work an
average of 500 overtime hours a year. He wants to hire people from
Honduras, India, Pakistan – anywhere.

Keesler and thousands of other U.S. employers are counting on
a new class of work visa proposed by a Colorado immigration lawyer
that would allow this move to happen. The proposal has developed
into a national Essential Worker Initiative to fill tens of
thousands of jobs by bringing unskilled and semi-skilled workers
from abroad.

Advocates plan to unveil the concept today at the American
Immigration Lawyers Association annual conference in Chicago.
Panelists will discuss the initiative Friday, then circulate draft
legislation in Congress.

This would be the latest in an alphabet soup of so-called
“non-immigrant” worker programs approved by Congress in recent
years to keep the economy growing without extending citizenship to

Rather than full-fledged immigration – a high-stakes issue
that presidential candidates have avoided – U.S. leaders
increasingly have focused on temporary non-immigrant programs
tailored to meet business needs. High-tech industry lobbyists say
they need 300,000 new white-collar workers; the federal Bureau of
Labor Statistics projects a shortage of 10 million workers within
the next decade.

First up in Congress this summer is a proposed increase in
“H1B” visas, which bring college-educated workers from abroad.
Support is strong from Silicon Valley to the White House for
raising the limit from 115,000 to about 200,000 visas a year. H1B
workers stay for up to six years.

The support comes despite charges the program is riddled with
abuse. The Denver Post has learned that federal labor officials
essentially rubber-stamp H1Bs with little scrutiny of the effects
on U.S. workers. And the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization
Service violated the existing H1B cap by letting in 21,888 too
many H1B workers last year. INS spokeswoman Eileen Schmidt said
the “overage” was because of a counting mistake.

Other legislation in Congress would streamline the H2A visa
program that brings agricultural workers from abroad.

Various proposals to give amnesty to some or all of the
estimated 6 million undocumented workers also are at play in a
packaging and repackaging designed to marshal congressional votes.
AFL-CIO labor union leaders support a broad amnesty for current
undocumented workers, which could increase union membership.

It all reflects a sea change in the immigration landscape.

Four years ago, Congress focused on deportation. Some
politicians worried that a new wave of immigration, the greatest
since the turn of the 20th century, would threaten national unity.

But in July, Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan warned
labor shortages threatened the national economy. Greenspan said
increased immigration could ease labor shortages and reduce
inflationary pressure.

Ever since, coalitions pushing for more foreign-born
non-immigrants have been gaining momentum. The population of
non-immigrants residing in the United States tops 3 million, based
on INS figures. That’s in addition to an annual flow of more than
900,000 immigrants (660,000 legal and 250,000 undocumented).

“What we are doing now is we are building up a huge reservoir
of temporary, non-immigrant residents in this country who are
trying to fit through a bottleneck of limited green cards,” said
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration
Reform, which opposes the efforts.

The influx, Stein said, “is killing the American worker’s
ability to get any kind of wage increase.”

The Essential Worker proposal that will circulate today in
Chicago is designed to help employers such as nursing homes,
hotels and motels, restaurants and construction companies.

An existing H2B program for temporary unskilled workers fails
to meet employer needs, said Donna Lipinski, the Denver-based
lawyer and AILA board member who proposed the essential worker
visa two years ago.

This year, AILA leaders resolved to back an essential-worker
initiative. They mobilized a coalition of 21 business groups.
Coalition leaders are considering coupling their proposal to
create essential-worker visas with proposals to grant amnesty for
undocumented workers.

Leaders are weighing whether to call for a specific number
of visas or tie the program to a national unemployment figure
above which essential workers would be sent home, advocacy
director Judy Golub said.

Even without specifics, the initiative has won some political

U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., backs efforts to ease labor
shortages, said his spokesman, Sean Conway. “He’ll consider any

Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush supports
H1B and H2A legislation, but hasn’t taken a position on essential
workers. Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate,
supports H1B visa increases, too, though he wants to attach
amnesty provisions for some undocumented workers. Gore backs H2A
reforms in principle. He hasn’t decided on essential workers.

Labor unions strongly oppose allowing any more workers from
abroad. “The reason employers can’t fill their jobs here is they
don’t pay enough money,” said Bob Greene, president of the
Colorado AFL-CIO. Employers want non-immigrant temps, Greene says,
because “they can not only pay them low wages, they can also force
them to do anything they want them to do.”

In the meantime, the agencies administering current
non-immigrant programs are strained. The needs of a soaring U.S.
economy, domestic workers and a global workforce hungry for
American jobs are colliding:

U.S. Department of Labor officials, traditionally charged
with watching U.S. worker interests, is focusing on easing
shortages for business. Congress required labor officials to
essentially rubber stamp 300,000 H1B certifications for 1 million
jobs, senior U.S. labor administrator John Fraser in Washington,
D.C, told The Post.

Yet, Fraser said, 19 percent of H1B workers are underpaid
in violation of those certifications. And government
investigations – 194 completed with 80 percent showing violations
– can only be done when H1B workers complain. Few do that, he
said. “We’ve tried to point this out over and over again, that
these workers are beholden to their employers.”

A pool of money set up to counter H1B effects on U.S. workers
is largely unspent. Job-training grants worth $12.4 million were
given this year. At least $40 million more is unspent, labor
officials said.

The INS – its enforcement budget has tripled since 1993 to
$4.3 billion a year – may go unpunished after violating the H1B
visa cap. H1B legislation contains “forgiveness clauses,” INS
spokeswoman Schmidt said. “The legislation contains language that
allows INS – it basically just forgives the overage.”

Foreign-born workers themselves are strained by the notion
that, in the future, the United States would use them temporarily,
legally, yet with no possibility of becoming U.S. citizens.

At the Burnsley Hotel in central Denver, maid Gabriela
Flores, 28, of Mexico, says she vacuums, wipes toilets and
polishes chandeliers because of a dream. She, her parents and nine
siblings migrated north hoping to become U.S. citizens who can
work into better jobs, vote and build a better life.

To work at unskilled jobs and perhaps be sent home if the
economy falters would make her feel “sick,” she said. “I want to
go to college. I want to be a kindergarten teacher.”

At the Broadmoor, Keesler would prefer “a long-term steady
workforce that’s local.” Any essential-worker legislation ought to
include provisions to send foreign-born workers home if the
economy slumps, he said.

But with few U.S. workers responding to his postings for
$6-an-hour-plus-tips and $8-an-hour jobs just getting permission
to hire foreigners is urgent.

Keesler tries to bolster spirits by giving out awards. He
sets an example by working long hours himself, and only ducking
out for fast food.

But when he approached a nearby Arby’s last month, Keesler
was dismayed. A note was posted on the drive-thru window. “Only
two people working today,” it said. “Drive-thru closed.”