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Senate Unveils Immigration Reform Bill

Posted in: Legislative Updates

On Wednesday, the bipartisan so-called “Gang of Eight” of U.S. Senators unveiled their immigration overhaul package, a product of months of closed-door negotiations with business groups and big labor. The bill is intended to address the status of millions of illegal immigrants currently living in the country, provide new enforcement measures, and restructure our nation’s guest worker program. The proposal has received a lukewarm reception at best, with some business groups concerned about the bill’s ability to meet their workforce needs.

First and foremost, the bill would create a path to citizenship for those illegally in this country by granting provision legal status for at least 10 years. During that time, the government would be tasked with securing the border and implementing a national employment verification system known as E-Verify that some states have already adopted. In addition to raising the cap for “highly skilled” temporary workers admitted under the H1B program, the bill would further create a new “W” visa class for lesser skilled workers that would include the construction industry.  The current law consists of an H-2B visa program for low-wage nonagricultural workers that is capped at 66,000 annually and applies only to seasonal or temporary jobs.

However, a number of construction groups have voiced concern that an arbitrary cap on W visas fails to adequately address the industry’s workforce needs. Lesser skilled workers in various industries including construction, would be eligible for the W visa. The program would start with an allotment of 20,000 W visas in 2015 and incrementally increase each year to an annual cap of 200,000 after five years. The construction industry would be limited to a maximum cap of 15,000 W visas each year, or 33 percent of the total allotment each year until the annual cap of 200,000 kicked in.  Initially, the Gang of Eight had included a further construction carve out that would have excluded all “Job Zone 3” construction occupations as classified by the Department of Labor that require more education and training – such as electricians – from W visa eligibility.  However, that language has since been removed in negotiations with the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC), of which IEC is a member.

Although most IEC members likely do not rely on visa programs for their workforce, companies working on construction projects that rely more heavily on foreign workers for other aspects of the build (such as masonry and roofing) could be impacted by the limited visa cap.

The Senate bill would also implement a mandatory national “E-Verify” employee verification system over a phase-in period. Employers with more than 5,000 employees would be phased in within two years, those with more than 500 would be phased in within three years, and small businesses with less than 500 employees would have four years to comply. Importantly, the program would include a crucial IEC-supported provision that establishes a “knowing intent” standard for liability for both employers and contractors that have subcontractor relationships, and would establish a higher definition for intent that requires “clear and convincing evidence” that an employer violated the law.

The full, 844 page Senate bill can be viewed here.

The U.S. House of Representatives is beginning work on its own legislation on immigration reform, which several Members of Congress have indicated will likely consist of multiple stand-alone bills rather than a comprehensive overhaul package. IEC will continue to work with EWIC to ensure that merit shop electrical and system contractors’ hiring and employment verification needs are addressed as immigration reform moves forward in Congress.

For more information, please contact Alexis Moch at amoch@ieci.org