The Friday-night deal between business and labor groups over how the U.S. will manage the future flow of foreign workers into the country is being hailed as a breakthrough. It clears the biggest hurdle blocking an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws and paves the way for a bill to be introduced in the Senate next week. If it ultimately becomes law, it could transform the way millions of businesses hire low-wage workers. But for the reforms to work, there’ll have to be a radical shift in the way both foreign workers and employers approach the process.
Say I own a hotel in Las Vegas. My staff of housekeepers, managers, and restaurant employees numbers about 1,000, most of whom are immigrants. Like most employers who use this labor, I generally bypass the government’s official process for hiring foreign workers—the H-2B guest worker program—and rely on a private staffing agency to find me workers instead. The guest worker program just isn’t worth the hassle: It requires placing ads in local papers and proving that Americans didn’t come forward to do the job. It means waiting for the Labor Department’s Prevailing Wage Center to tell me how much I’m supposed to pay the foreign workers. It offers no flexibility if I need to keep workers on board for more time than their visa allows.