The W-visa program also includes some industry carve-outs and giveaways. In addition to the usual number of W visas granted, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security can make available an extra number for individuals who work in “animal production subsectors” (which would seem to include mostly meat cutters). This extra number of visas can reach as high as 10 percent of the number of standard W visas granted during a year. So up to 20,000 guest workers in the meat-preparation field could enter in a year. Moreover, the DHS secretary could add additional positions over the usual W-visa cap if employers met certain conditions.
But it would be a mistake to focus only on the W-visa holders themselves, because the treatment of the dependents of these visa holders could also have far-reaching effects. The spouse and minor children of a W-visa holder will be allowed to accompany the W-visa holder, so each visa issued could result in multiple individuals’ migrating to the U.S. And the spouses of visa holders will be able to do more than just live here. They will also, as the bill puts it, be “authorized to engage in employment in the United States” during the period of admission. A Senate source confirms that this authorization would be an “open-ended authorization,” allowing the spouse to work in any field — not just W-visa-registered positions. While W-visa holders are limited in where they can seek employment, their spouses do not seem to be so limited.
So reports suggesting that the W-visa program would be capped at 200,000 annually could substantially underestimate the number of workers brought in under this program. The giveaway to the meat-preparation industry pushes this figure up to 220,000, and each holder of this visa could bring along another possible worker (a spouse) in addition to minor children. So 300,000 workers a year admitted under this program would not be an impossible number — and that’s not including the other extra W visas that DHS could supply through various other loopholes.
If Republicans hope to “settle” the immigration issue by passing a legalization/guest-worker bill, they may be in for a rude surprise. These guest-worker programs, like much else in the Gang of Eight bill, could serve not to eliminate ambiguity in the nation’s immigration laws but to expand it. The W-visa provision, for instance, stipulates that visa holders must leave the country if they are unemployed for more than 60 consecutive days, but it seems that such visa holders are able to apply only for jobs that are registered under the W visa. What if a local employer without a W-visa position wants to hire this visa holder? We could see a public debate arise over allowing W-visa holders who are already in the country to apply for non-W jobs.
Furthermore, the DHS secretary can designate certain metropolitan areas as “excluded,” meaning that new applications for W-visa positions cannot be approved. But what if some employer in that region wants to hire a W-visa worker? What if a W-visa worker is laid off in an area that was declared excluded after he was hired? Should this worker have to uproot himself and his family to travel to another area where the government will allow him to work? Those sorts of limitations could provide even more incentive for non-citizen workers in the country to skirt employment law. And what about the dependents of W-visa holders — what educational opportunities should they get in the U.S.?
These debates could become particularly contentious when W-visa holders are parents of U.S. citizens, which brings to mind one of the great complicating factors of any guest-worker program: Any child born in the United States is, according to standard interpretations of constitutional and statutory law, a citizen of the United States. What happens to guest-worker-visa holders who have a child in the U.S.? What about the foreign-born siblings of this child? The expansion of the guest-worker program under the Gang of Eight bill could significantly increase the size of this legal gray area. Potential political tripwires like these permeate the guest-worker legislative provisions, as they do the rest of the immigration bill.
The implications of these guest-worker programs can be further contextualized by looking at recent employment data. Supporters of “comprehensive immigration reform” are considering a radical expansion of the pool of possible guest workers when American employment is still recovering from the Great Recession. The unemployment rate has stayed at or above 7.5 percent for over four years, a postwar record. The work-force-participation rate has dropped to a level not seen since the 1970s, when women were still entering the work force in large numbers.