WASHINGTON — Sen. Michael Bennet’s chief legislative contribution to the immigration reform bill were his proposals to expand the number of temporary farm and high-skilled workers admitted into the country. But a prominent liberal senator has attacked those provisions as harmful to the pocketbooks of young people and the jobless.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Socialist who caucuses with Democrats, warned that the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill could help create a “permanent underclass” of people who are unable to find work.
“I do not support a huge expansion of the guest-worker program that allows hundreds of thousands of guest workers to come into this country … at a time when so many people are unemployed,” Sanders said on the Senate floor Tuesday, referring to the national unemployment rate of 7.5 percent and a youth jobless rate of 24.5 percent. “Let’s not turn our backs on kids who want to get into the market.”
Last Thursday, Sanders sought to refute the notion that corporations need the H-1B visa program to import high-skilled talent.
He noted that according to a Government Accountability Office report, 54 percent of the H-1B guest workers were employed in entry-level jobs and performed routine tasks while 6 percent of H-1B visa holders had highly-specialized skills.
Sanders did not mention the name of Bennet, a Colorado Democrat and chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Yet his criticism represents a rare instance in which the immigration reform bill attracted criticism from a left-leaning lawmaker for undercutting low-wage workers.
Legalization supporters defended the guest-worker and H-1B visa programs as necessary for demographic and economic reasons.
“We’re an aging population,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said in an interview. “When the 80 million baby boomers retire, someone will need to replace them.”
Graham was alluding to a Congressional Budget Office report Tuesday that found the immigration bill would increase the number of people in the United States by 10.4 million within ten years and 16.2 million within 20 years.
A Bennet spokesman did not return an email to respond to Sanders and the senator was unavailable for comment at the Capitol.
The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, S. 744, would increase the number of low-skilled foreign workers in phases. As many as 200,000 a year would be admitted as soon as the fifth year of the W visa program. The immigration bill would also allow 115,000 to 180,000 foreigners to hold H-1B visas and an undetermined number of H-2B visa holders to work as ski instructors.
For hiring temporary workers, the W Visa program would require employers to pay a sliding scale for a requested position. For example, an employer would need to pay $3,500 if more than 15 percent of its workers are not American citizens.
The effect of Sanders’ criticism is unclear. He hinted he would oppose the Senate immigration bill if the guest-worker provisions of the bill are not amended.
Republicans are divided on the substance of Sanders’ criticism. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has praised Bennet’s provisions as necessary for the high-tech and agricultural sectors, while Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama has criticized them as enlarging the labor pool artificially and harming the interests of working-class Americans.
Sanders filed an amendment Monday that would create a $1.5 billion summer jobs program for low-income, unemployed teenagers. In an interview, the Vermont senator said he was working with Democratic leadership and Senate colleagues to build support.