Construction lobbyists fall short in push for more foreign workers

Idaho GOP Rep. Raul Labrador favors no limits on immigration visas but says that wouldn’t pass.

THE WASHINGTON POSTJuly 9, 2013 

The sprawling Senate immigration legislation now headed to the U.S. House is packed with provisions to help businesses hire foreign workers, whether for computer labs in Silicon Valley, cruise ships docked in Florida and other U.S. ports or seafood-processing centers in Alaska.

Yet in the frenetic push by K Street to cram in as many new guest-worker visas as possible, lobbyists for one industry came up short: construction.

While industry advocates say firms will need to hire more than 200,000 new workers per year, the number of foreign-worker construction visas can never exceed 15,000 per year under the Senate bill.

The setback, unusual for an otherwise powerful special-interest lobby, reflects the political tightrope being walked by each party as leaders try to pass an immigration overhaul while balancing concerns from influential skeptics.

Construction lobbyists, unlike their brethren in a host of other industries, have been stymied by large numbers of lawmakers in both parties.

Labor unions, who say high unemployment among construction workers belies industry claims about how many workers they need, are pressuring Democrats to oppose an expanded guest-worker program. And many conservative Republicans are wary of adding foreign-worker visas of any kind.

That odd coalition blocked the industry in the Senate, where efforts by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., and a handful of other GOP lawmakers to undo the cap were defeated. And it leaves the industry little room to operate in the Republican-led House, where immigration legislation will need support from many Democrats and a large segment of the GOP to have any chance for passage.

"It's the unholy alliance of the far right and the left," said Geoffrey Burr, chief lobbyist for Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group with close ties to Republicans.

NEW INDUSTRY PUSH

The industry wants legislation with no special restrictions on construction jobs. Officials from Associated General Contractors, a trade association with an Idaho chapter, planned to target key GOP members with calls and office visits to underscore the merits of the industry position.

House leaders have vowed to tackle immigration piecemeal, and Republican-drafted legislation has been rolled out in recent days focused on enhancing border security and adding high-tech workers.

A bipartisan group of House members seeking a compromise on immigration has failed to reach an accord on construction and other less-skilled worker visas. Two conservatives, Reps. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Ted Poe, R-Tex., are quietly drafting a measure that would give the industry closer to what it wants, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, who is seen by the industry as an ally, has scheduled a July 10 meeting of House Republicans to plot the way forward. But Boehner has largely deferred to Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who heads the House Judiciary Committee and has favored a more restrictive approach to immigration. Goodlatte has given no indication of what he would do on this issue.

Labrador acknowledged that the political crosscurrents present an unusual challenge in winning support for more worker visas.

"There is some resistance," Labrador said in an interview.

"If it were up to me, I would have an unlimited cap and a free-market wage system. But I know that is not going to pass, so I'm trying to figure out what the right formula is to get it out of the House."

Democratic lawmakers are proving an even less friendly audience to construction industry lobbyists.

That's because the AFL-CIO, a key Democratic constituency, insisted on the strict limits on foreign construction workers as a condition for backing the broader immigration legislation.

The federation has been blamed for helping to thwart a 2007 overhaul effort amid concerns over allowing too many guest workers.

UNIONS' ARGUMENT

The unions argue that the elevated jobless rate in construction - 16.1 percent when the negotiations began in January and 10.8 percent in May - undermine the industry's position that it needs to bring in workers from other countries.

The issue of low-skilled foreign workers has been simmering for years. There is no year-round visa program for these jobs, which also include janitors, hospital aides, meat packers, hotel maids and restaurant dishwashers.

Advocates for expansion say the lack of a year-round program is a primary cause for the presence of so many unauthorized immigrants.

Lawmakers say the limit on construction workers makes sense because, unlike other industries, Americans are still willing to work as, say, plumbers, electricians, blacksmiths or welders.

But the industry is already reporting labor shortages in Idaho and elsewhere. Treasure Valley new-home construction has returned almost to prerecession levels, but the number of construction workers in Idaho plummeted from 52,000 in 2008 to 31,200 in 2012.

Labrador, a tea party-backed lawmaker and immigration lawyer, has stayed involved in crafting immigration legislation since leaving the bipartisan group's compromise effort.

The House won't be able to reach an accord on a broad immigration bill as the Senate did, he says.

"I don't think that we can get a big bipartisan bill, but I think we can strike a lot of coalitions with individual bills that can pass the House that will eventually" be fodder for House-Senate negotiations, Labrador says.

Labrador also says the House should move methodically and not accelerate the process to seek political gains with the nation's growing Hispanic population.

"We're running around like chickens with our heads cut off, thinking that we have to do this for political reasons," Labrador told reporters. "The biggest mistake we can make as conservatives is to pander to the Hispanic community."

It remains unclear how much sentiment exists for any kind of program that could bring millions of undocumented immigrants to legal status.

"We are actually sending the right message to the American people that we are tolerant, but we are first a nation of laws," Labrador says. "That's what the American people want to make sure, that we enforce the laws that are in the books, not that we're creating this atmosphere where we're encouraging the people to violate the laws."

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Bloomberg News and the Statesman's Washington Bureau contributed.

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