WASHINGTON – The Senate slashed the size of a proposed guest-worker program for foreign laborers Wednesday, dealing the first real blow to a fragile overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws since it reached the Senate floor this week.
The bipartisan 74 to 24 vote trimmed a program that could have admitted as many as 600,000 laborers a year down to 200,000, a level that proponents asserted would minimize the risk that participants would depress wages and replace U.S. workers.
The Bush administration had strongly opposed the amendment, dispatching Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to declare before the vote that the measure “would eliminate … critical flexibility” in the program and shrivel it to an inadequate size.
But 27 Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev., and 45 other Democrats in rebuffing that plea. Independent Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont also voted to trim the program.
“There are a variety of jobs that may be filled by guest workers, from construction to hotel service, and we shouldn’t be placing American workers in the position of competing with an unlimited number of guest workers,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the amendment’s author.
The bipartisan negotiators who created the immigration bill said the blow to what they call their “grand bargain” will not unravel the coalition. The compromise is premised on four central tenets: tightening border controls and punishing the employers of illegal immigrants; granting legal status to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country; establishing a robust guest-worker program to give would-be illegal immigrants a legitimate route into the country; and shifting the emphasis of future legal migration away from family reunification and into favoring immigrants with work skills and education.
The immigration compromise envisioned a guest-worker program that could issue 400,000 two-year work visas a year, renewable up to three times, provided the laborers leave the country for a year between each stint. If the demand for workers is high, the number of visas could rise to as high as 600,000 a year.
With a fixed limit of 200,000 a year, the program would not only be smaller, it would also be less responsive to the fluctuating demand for labor, said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who, along with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., led the negotiations on the compromise.