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If the Republicans were genuinely concerned about the impact of immigration on labor, they would push for cuts to temporary guestworker programs – but they have been staunch defenders of them, says William Spriggs, Chief Economist to the AFL-CIO

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The Republicans on the Hill are gearing up to fight President Obama’s November 20 executive order on immigration. The bill promises to protect 5 million out of 12 million from deportation. In order to stop the order, the Republicans are willing to withhold funds from agencies that would implement the order and threaten government shutdown. They have already initiated legal action against the president on the legality of executive orders. This one is related to health care.

But Republicans argue that immigration will be a drain on social services. American workers will now have to compete with more workers and fewer jobs, and labor protections, like union membership, afforded to them by the new legal status, will force employers to decrease wages. Is there any truth to this?

Joining us now to discuss this is William Spriggs. Spriggs serves as chief economist to AFL-CIO, and he’s former chair and professor at the Department of Economics at Howard University. Bill is also former assistant secretary for the Office of Policy at the United States Department of Labor.

Thank you so much for joining us, bill.


PERIES: Bill, so let me begin with the immigration bill. What’s your take on this new controversial immigration policy on the Hill?

SPRIGGS: Well, the beginning part that the president has put in place is to try and address one of the great difficulties we have with the process to citizenship in the United States. So we still apportion the path to citizenship on a quota basis, which doesn’t necessarily meet the number of people who come from individual countries. So a lot of people are left in limbo. They would be in line for ever. And many of them have come to the borders to work anyway. So what the president has done is to normalize the status of at least some of those workers so that they can move freely about in the country without fear of deportation. In particular, he’s chosen those who have families here.

So it’s misleading to say that it’s new immigration. These are people with roots here in our communities. They have children here who are U.S. citizens, who are already in our schools. And these are people who already work. So there are no jobs for them to take from someone. They’re already working. The children are already part of our communities and the fabric of our nation. So there’s no logic involved in saying they take away jobs.

But once they are regularized and free to move about means they are out of the shadows and come under the full protection of our labor laws and their ability to file claims to protect their labor rights, because under current law, if a worker is here and they don’t have documentation that allows them to work and they’ve been cheated because they didn’t get backpay or they were cheated because they didn’t get overtime, they don’t have the right to win that backpay. The court can rule that, yes, the employer was wrong, but you need to leave the country, so we’re not going to make two wrongs make a right and you don’t get to keep the back wages.

So it’s important that their abilities to operate freely within our law is there. That puts us on a far better footing, because now we have their jobs visible. It means that Americans can compete for those jobs. It puts them in the regular workforce so that they can fight about making sure that they get overtime. And as you mentioned, it gives them the ability and the right to organize with the same protection as all workers in the United States have to organize.

PERIES: Right. Bill, thank you for making clear the first part of this, which is essentially a family reunification effort by the president’s order. The second part, which is the labor–implications on the labor force, which the Republicans argue is essentially detrimental to workers in this country, are there any facts to back that up?

SPRIGGS: Well, the second thing that the president did had to do with provisions for high-educated workers. And Republicans have control over this and have always had control over this because there what the president is doing is trying to expedite pathways to citizenship for workers who have H1B visas. If Republicans were concerned about that, they could certainly join with the AFL-CIO, where we have had great concerns about H1B visas, and cut the number. There are ways of cutting out guestworker programs, and Republicans have consistently fought to protect those guestworker programs.

In the case of the H2B visa, which is for non-agricultural workers who don’t do technical work but may do seasonal work, Republicans have been ardent protectors of that. And when the Department of Labor sought to raise the standards to make that program work in a way that would be more favorable to American workers and to ensure that American workers would get first choice, Republicans voted to cut funding to the Department of Labor so that that regulation could not be put in place. So it’s a little strange to hear Republicans now suddenly concerned about temporary visa holders and workers coming here under a future flow.

Even in the Senate bill, it was the Republicans who sided with the Chamber of Commerce to try and gut a labor test to how future flows would be handled. They wanted to have the most lax standard by which that would be done. They wanted it to be simply on the word of business. And so the compromise that is in the Senate bill at least puts in place a commission to look at what are the actual labor needs of the nation as we go forward.

Now, the president did acknowledge that in what he did. And when it comes to the H1B visa, then yes, there are problems, and an executive order cannot solve just that area. Sixty-one percent of those coming with an H1B visa are brought here to be computer programmers. And yet, in the United States, over the last 12 years, the number of Americans and permanent residents earning degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics has been increasing each year.

But in those same last 12 years, the number of Americans choosing computer programming has been declining. Why? Well, it’s quite obvious. If you’re smart enough to get a degree in science technology and engineering–and more and more Americans are–but you see that we have a policy to bring in temporary workers in that specific area, why would you major in that area? And the downturn in 2008 and 2009, when all industries were losing workers and we were losing jobs in computer programming, we still brought in one-hundred-and-some thousand H1B workers in 2008, over 100,000 in 2009, despite the fact that each year we were graduating tens of thousands of Americans with degrees in that field. So, of course, people got the message, and they don’t major in computer programming in the same numbers they used to, because that policy has flattened the wages for computer programmers and made other areas of science and technology more lucrative. So, Americans, even though they’re majoring in greater numbers in science, are shying away from computer programming.

And we know from an antitrust suit that is pending in Silicon Valley that many of those companies are under charge in an investigation for an antitrust fight violation because they were rigging the wages of computer programmers, holding them flat, so that they could claim that there was a shortage, when of course it wasn’t that there was a shortage; it was that they were manipulating the cost, the price, if you will, of the labor. So is there something about that portion of the executive order? Yes, there is. But Republicans have consistently voted to increase H1B visas, and in the Senate bill fought very hard to make sure that we would get more future flow of workers. And the Republican Party was adamant in undermining the H2B visa program, where Americans who need jobs in the summer have to compete with foreign workers.

PERIES: Bill, in 2007, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law did a study on low-wage workers. They found that retail workers faced pervasive workplace violations, including discrimination based on immigration status and immigration-related retaliation if they complained about their workplace conditions. There were, at the time, workers who were making about $6 an hour and not paid overtime, even if they worked over 50 hours a week. This story is not unique, as you know. The retail industry is one, but the same could apply to kitchens in many restaurants and garden work.

Now, does the argument that the Republicans make, which is that these conditions should not be corrected, and if corrected by legalizing the workforce that is currently legal, would actually force employers to increase wages. Is that so? And shouldn’t this injustice be corrected?

SPRIGGS: Well, of course it affects the wages of legal workers, because it allowed those firms that wish to break the law to have lower cost and put pressure on other employers to find ways to keep their costs down, which of course then means putting pressure on the wages of workers who are here legally. So having a bad apple, having someone who wants to violate the law and cut corners, hurts those who wish to obey the law and make sure that workers who are free to move in the labor market benefit from a free labor market. So it really doesn’t make sense to say, well, I don’t want a free labor market, I want workers to be captive, I want workers to lack freedom, and I don’t want our laws to be enforced.

But that’s nonsense. And so all workers benefit when all workers can live under the same set of rules, and all employers benefit when all employers play under the same set of rules. So, limiting the ability of firms to act illegally to pay less than the legal minimum wage, to ignore our laws or overtime, this is good for all workers. That’s why we have the laws.

PERIES: And would you extend that argument to include undocumented workers that are working illegally in the country?

SPRIGGS: Well, again, as I mentioned before, those workers are already here. They already have jobs. But they aren’t free to move about. So the good thing about what the president is doing is he’s adding a set of workers who now can come out of the shadows who are totally free to seek enforcement of American labor standards without fear of retaliation that they may be deported. And that’s essential so that they can assert their right that all workers in America have to pay the minimum wage, be paid under the overtime regulation to be able to access the Family Leave Act. All of these things are essential to the functioning of our labor market and to the benefit of all workers. Again, these workers are already here. They are already doing jobs. So there’s no argument, there’s no logic that they’re taking jobs. They are already working.

PERIES: Right. Well, Bill, thank you so much for joining us today and clarifying and actually nailing this argument that the Republicans are making. It’s really unfortunate that they’re taking this up, because it’s such a violation of, as you said, the workers that are already in our workforce.

SPRIGGS: Yes, and it is tragic, because they had well over a year and a half in the House to pass the legislation, and over the past year they only were in session a third of the time. So after they voted to shut down the government and make the government nonfunctional and delay the budgeting process and delay the procurement process that denied many workers their right to get a job because their procurement, the government purchase that supported their job, wasn’t taking place, it’s a little odd for them to say it’s the president’s fault for finally acting.

PERIES: Right. Thank you so much for joining us, Bill.

SPRIGGS: Have a good day.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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William Spriggs is a professor of economics at Howard University and the Chief Economist of the AFL-CIO. He is the immediate past Assistant Secretary for Policy of the US Department of Labor and has held numerous government positions and leadership roles in Civil Rights organizations.