Employment-Based Immigration

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Thursday I taught my class at Hofstra Law School the basics of employment-based immigration. We discussed the visas (“Green Cards”) available for scientists and professors, nurses, hockey players, and actors, as well as special visas for shepherds, priests, and workers on the Panama Canal. After and hour and a half catalogue of visas, I asked what was missing in the employment-based immigration system.

One student said he was surprised there were no permanent resident visas for farmworkers. Most of the laborers in the fields appeared to be Latino and he wondered why they could not get visas.

I told him that a majority of migrant farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, but that no “Green Cards’ are available to them. Others in the class wondered about visas for housekeepers,  landscapers and the like.

In 1990, the last time Congress revamped the employment-based immigration system, our legislators rightly anticipated an America moving towards a knowledge-based economy. So they created tens of thousands of visas for the best and the brightest. But they failed to note another employment trend.

America’s workforce in the 1990s was becoming fully mobilized. Women were no longer staying home to cook and clean and adults were spending more and more time at work or in commute. This led to an increasing reliance on a service sector to provide those labor products formerly produced in the home. In less fancy language; in the 1950s most families cooked their own food, cared for their own pre-school children, mowed their own lawns, and cleaned their own houses. Today many of these tasks are performed outside the home or by non-family members paid to do them. So, for example, today a family typically spends half of its food budget on meals in restaurants or on take-out food. Similarly, every morning trucks roll through suburban neighborhoods carrying men from the Third World who jump off the truck to mow and rake lawns. They have taken over what was once the quintessential suburban male ritual.

At the same time the service sector exploded, the supply of workers declined. Congress’s lack of foresight left illegal immigration as the only route to meet the need for millions of low skilled service workers. This has led to the marginalization of these workers and their hyperexploitation by employers and ultimately by their endusers, often the same suburbanites who call for their expulsion.

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