Cabinet_of_Dr_Caligari_1920_Lobby_Card.jpgOne of the most challenging elements of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) has long been the need for consensus on the legal, temporary entry of essential foreign workers. This plan for “future flows” of guest workers is critical if we are to reduce the incentive of unauthorized migrants to crash the border.

The lack of agreement between business and labor over guest-worker admissions, a contributing factor in the collapse of the last CIR effort in 2007, may be, however, a thing of the past.  

Last week, The AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a “Joint Statement of Shared Principles,” offering seeming harmony on future flows in these words:

[There] are instances – even during tough economic times – when employers are not able to fill job openings with American workers. . . . [It] is important that our laws permit businesses to hire foreign workers without having to go through a cumbersome and inefficient process. Our challenge is to create a mechanism that responds to the needs of business in a market-driven way, while also fully protecting the wages and working conditions of U.S. and immigrant workers. Among other things, this requires a new kind of worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status, provides labor mobility in a way that still gives American workers a first shot at available jobs, and that automatically adjusts as the American economy expands and contracts. . . 

[We] need to fix the system so that it is much more transparent, which requires that we build a base of knowledge using real-world data about labor markets and demographics. The power of today’s technology enables us to use that knowledge to craft a workable demand-driven process fed by data that will inform how America addresses future labor shortages. We recognize that there is no simple solution to this issue. We agree that a professional bureau in a federal executive agency, with political independence analogous to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS], should be established to inform Congress and the public about these issues.

The prospect of an independent BLS-type bureau becoming involved is intriguing since the BLS’s current mission already seems to align nicely with the task of gathering relevant job-shortage data:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor [DOL] is the principal Federal agency responsible for measuring labor market activity . . . . As an independent statistical agency, BLS serves its diverse user communities by providing products and services that are objective, timely, accurate, and relevant.

The problems with the concept, however, are many.

For one, we tried this before and it went nowhere.  In 1990 Congress commissioned DOL to set up a three-year experiment requiring a “determination . . . of labor shortages or surpluses in up to 10 defined occupational classifications in the United States . . .” [See the Immigration Act of 1990 § 122(a).]  

When the Labor Department proposed its initial list, however, all hell broke out.  Labor and business disagreed vociferously over whether the right shortage or surplus occupations had been identified.  Unable to take the heat, DOL quickly retreated and, since that time, has maintained that it lacks the data to determine shortage occupations:

No. The BLS projections assume a labor market in equilibrium, i.e., one where overall labor supply meets labor demand except for some degree of frictional unemployment. . . .

Furthermore, attempts by some to ascribe shortages or surpluses to our projections are based on an incorrect comparison of the total employment and total labor force projections, two separate and fundamentally different measures. . . . Users of these data should not assume that the difference between the projected increase in the labor force and the projected increase in employment implies a labor shortage or surplus.


Instead, as I’ve noted in previous blog posts and explained to National Public Radio’s Martin Kaske on Morning Edition this week, employers must carry the burden of recruitment under an artificial labor certification program (DOL’s mandated testing procedure for employers to prove that a particular job cannot be filled by qualified and available American workers) that is an “empty ritual”:

PAPARELLI: So U.S. workers put on their suits and ties and their white shirts and they shine their shoes, and they go to the interview thinking that they have the opportunity that they’ve been longing for, only to be rejected.

KASTE: Paparelli calls it an empty ritual required by the Department of Labor, as it compels employers to prove a negative, to prove they can’t find qualified workers. The result, he says, is pointless job interviews.

Given that DOL apparently lacks the technical data and the political courage to declare shortage occupations, the solution lies in taking the declaration out of frail human hands, as Louis D. (“Don”) Crocetti, a former senior immigration official now in private consulting, suggested to me in a recent email:

[Any] Guest-Worker Program (GWP) should be driven by the labor needs of this country, not emotion, politics, or other subjectivity. These needs must be data-driven. Prior to implementing any GWP, we should develop a much better mechanism in which to determine occupational shortages. The current system is primarily paper-based, thus inefficient, ineffective, and fraud-ridden.

Thought should be given to developing a national jobs or labor data system that is engaged by all states, working collaboratively with the U.S. DOL. States should be required to enter specific labor data and employers should be required to use this system to post and recruit workers, and provide other data needed to determine the labor needs of this country in a progressive, real-time manner. This system could also be engaged to determine and administer permanent employment-based (immigrant) visas, as well as manage the issuance and use of visa numbers.

I agree with Don Crocetti on the importance of removing emotion, politics and subjectivity from the current process for declaring occupational shortages and on the need for real-time, data-driven reports of jobs that go unfilled.  I offer, however, some friendly amendments.  

U.S. employers should not be put to the burden of recruiting for candidates in shortage-designated jobs.  A simple print-out of the screen shot from the government’s forthcoming database showing the lack of workers in the occupational classification should be all that’s needed for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to approve an employment-based immigrant visa petition.  Thus, DOL’s current PERM labor certification procedure could be eliminated.

Moreover, there should be no change in current H-1B requirements  relieving all but H-1B dependent employers and willful violators from the duty to recruit for these nonimmigrant visas.  As I explained to NPR’s Martin Kaste:

These [H-1B] hires have to happen very quickly. The job imperatives that the customers impose are so time-sensitive, that [advance recruitment simply] can’t work.

So let us now face the question posed in the title of this post:  

Will the new labor-business accord produce an immigration death panel?  The answer is “NO”  — as long as political influence and hackery is kept out of the equation and algorithms digesting state- and employer-fed job openings and hiring data are allowed to produce up-to-the-minute reports of shortage occupations.  

But an economy-killing immigration death panel it will assuredly be — a veritable Dr. Caligari’s cabinet — if instead a “bureau in a federal executive agency . . . [is] established [merely] to inform Congress and the public about these issues.”