The Corner

Law & the Courts

Release Prisoners — Then Torpedo Their Chances at a Job?

(Stephen Lam/REUTERS)

I haven’t seen anyone comment on the contradiction between two measures being considered by Congress. On the one hand, the FIRST STEP Act aims to reform criminal sentencing by releasing non-violent offenders sooner so they can re-integrate into their communities.

Lawmakers I respect are on opposite sides of this measure, with Senator Mike Lee promoting it and Senator Tom Cotton opposing it. Apart from the serious immigration problems with the bill, I haven’t studied it, and so reserve judgment on its merits overall.

But taken at face value, the goal of the bill is admirable — to make it less likely that people convicted of relatively minor crimes develop into hardened criminals through long sentences, and are instead able to return to their homes and rebuild their lives.

Part of any plan to rebuild lives has to be the availability of jobs. Ex-cons are often poorly educated, and many have drug or alcohol problems to boot. The kinds of jobs they’re most likely to be qualified for usually require little skill — landscaping, for instance, or cleaning, unskilled construction labor, kitchen work, etc. What’s more, employers are understandably reluctant to hire ex-cons, even for such low-skilled jobs, for fear that they’ll revert to their old ways.

So it would seem logical to suppose that any legislation designed to facilitate the successful re-entry of ex-cons into society would also make sure that employers had an incentive to hire them. The best such incentive is a tight labor market, where employers have to take whatever workers they can find. The model would be something like this story from January, where a garage-door company was so short on staff that the owner took a chance on a non-violent drug offender in a work-release program and was delighted with the result.

It’s not always going to work out that way. In many instances, the ex-con will turn out to be the dirtbag the employer feared, and the company might experience a theft or loss of business as a consequence. But those ex-cons who do want to rebuild their lives would not get a second look without a tight labor market, with employers willing to hire anyone with a pulse.

So what is Congress considering doing about that problem? Doubling the foreign-worker program for the very jobs ex-cons are most suited for! The H-2B visa program for non-agricultural, unskilled seasonal workers specifically designed to loosen the labor market — i.e., relieve employers of the burden of hustling for workers. (BuzzFeed — yes, that BuzzFeed — has done yeoman’s work in exposing this scam.)

The program is currently capped at 66,000 visas a year (though certain returning workers aren’t counted against that cap, or “cap”). Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina is leading the effort to double the number of these foreign workers to 132,000 a year.

There’s a strong push among congressional Republicans (motto: “Cheap Labor R Us”) behind this effort — and the president would likely go along, considering that he’s defended his own use of the program at Mar-a-Lago and elsewhere by noting that these are jobs Americans won’t take. Seeing the momentum, Senator Chuck Grassley, no friend of this crony-capitalist racket, has been trying to insert some mitigating measures, such as requiring all employers who use H-2Bs to check their entire work force through E-Verify.

But that’s just putting lipstick on the pig. If Congress is serious about helping nonviolent offenders get back on the straight and narrow, it would not only abandon the effort to double H-2B visas, but instead amend the FIRST STEP Act with a provision abolishing the H-2B program altogether.

Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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