CONOVER — U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson evidently isn’t a fan of “Buy American, Hire American” policies.
In May, the Oshkosh Republican introduced Senate Bill 1040 to enable corporations to fire U.S. workers and replace them with hundreds of thousands of imported foreign laborers. The proposed law would reduce American employment opportunities and restrict wage growth from Milwaukee to Miami, from Green Bay to Grand Rapids.
The bill would give all 50 states the authority to issue work visas. Each state would be allotted 5,000 visas, and an additional 250,000 visas would be divided among the states based on population.
In total, Sen. Johnson’s plan would bring in 500,000 new guest workers to the United States each year. These workers would be allowed to bring their spouses, also eligible for work permits, and their children, who would strain the budgets of local public school districts.
In theory, these three-year visas are “temporary.” But they may be renewed indefinitely, without requiring the visa holder to return home. They effectively grant workers permanent residency.
But what if the foreign worker doesn’t work out? Is the company obligated to inform U.S. Immigration services that particular foreign workers must return to their home country?
Supporters of Johnson’s bill argue this massive expansion of the guest worker program is necessary to alleviate a supposed labor shortage in certain industries, pointing to Wisconsin’s unemployment rate of 3.2 percent as proof that our state can absorb more foreign workers without endangering Americans’ jobs.
But that number only tells half the story. It doesn’t count discouraged workers who have given up looking for jobs, nor those who are underemployed and unable to work full-time. The true unemployment rate doubles to 7.7 percent when discouraged and underemployed people are included.
Wisconsinites are still hurting from the recession with wages and salaries below the national average. Nearly three in 10 Wisconsin workers earn poverty wages. Poverty rates are even higher among minorities and those without a college degree.
Bringing in additional foreign laborers would hit disadvantaged groups particularly hard. Harvard economist George Borjas found that a sudden influx of immigrants can cause low-skilled Americans’ wages to drop 30 percent.
This bill unnecessarily creates costly layers of Washington, D.C., bureaucracies out of touch with the 50 states. Will Washington bureaucrats vet these foreigners? Can their paperwork be trusted?
Shouldn’t national policy seek to increase wages for these vulnerable Wisconsinites before opening up job opportunities to foreign workers?
Already, the immigration system enables companies to replace Americans with cheaper foreign workers. Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual laid off dozens of workers in March, even as it filed for visas to bring in hundreds of new guest workers.
Another Milwaukee firm, HR consultancy ManpowerGroup — which I worked for as a temp employee many times as my kids grew up — axed 150 of its employees, but not before requiring them to train their foreign replacements.
Business groups claim guest workers primarily take jobs Americans won’t do. Untrue. The Census Bureau broke down the labor market into 472 distinct occupations. U.S.-born workers accounted for a majority of the employees in all but six job types. Half of maids and housekeepers, two-thirds of construction workers, and nearly three-quarters of janitors are American citizens.
Corporations like large guest worker programs not because there aren’t enough Americans to fill jobs, but because they can pay foreign laborers lower wages. Guest workers often make 20 percent to 30 percent less than comparable American workers.
Sen. Johnson’s bill does nothing to prevent foreign workers from undercutting Americans’ wages. Nothing requires employers to pay these laborers the local prevailing wage. Nor do guest workers have to pass a job test demonstrating any in-demand skills.
Even people working in the country illegally can apply for a visa under Sen. Johnson’s plan. That’s backdoor amnesty.
If companies are truly struggling to find skilled American workers, they should collaborate with American schools to ensure students graduate with in-demand skills.
Tens of thousands of Wisconsinites are underemployed or stuck in low-wage jobs. Sen. Johnson’s proposal to import foreign workers would drive wages down even further and lead to preventable layoffs.