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GOP congressmen warn Boehner against ‘very unpopular’ business push for guest workers

Photo of Neil Munro
Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

Two GOP legislators are asking party leadership to explain how many new immigrants and guest workers they want to admit into the U.S. over the next few years.

The leaders are “contemplating a very large (and very unpopular) increase in the future legal flow of foreign workers… What is the total number of foreign workers (in other words, all working-age legal immigrants, employer-sponsored green cards, guest workers, and amnestied illegal immigrants) that would be given legal status over the next decade?” says the letter from Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks and North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones.

“We must act to get unemployed and underpaid Americans into steady middle class jobs… [but] current record immigration, which has quadrupled over the last four decades, has already played a significant role in both the decline in wages and the decline in workforce participation,” said the letter.

The letter highlights a very contentious issue that GOP legislators and their leadership will face as the November election comes closer.

Business lobbyists and donors are demanding a large quantity of extra immigrant and guest worker labor, but polls show that swing voters and GOP supporters are even more opposed to the inflow of low-wage foreign workers than they are to the granting of amnesty to illegal immigrants. (RELATED: Poll shows swing voters hating everything Obama)

Currently, the U.S. government allows 1 million immigrants and more than 650,000 non-agriculture guest workers into the country permanently each year. Roughly 4 million Americans turn 18 each year.

Brooks and Jones sent their letter to the GOP leadership, including House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which is expected to play a large role in any immigration push. The GOP leaders have repeatedly indicated they’d like to push through an immigration bill, but are facing growing opposition from the public and GOP legislators.

The pushback against cheap labor is being led by Brooks and other legislators in the House, and by Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions in the Senate, who argues that lower immigration will help Americans, immigrants and GOP candidates.

Polls show the public strongly opposes guest workers. For example, 68 percent of swing-voting moderates oppose a law that would allow companies to annually bring in 500,000 guest-workers to work for the food industry, according to an unpublished January poll of likely voters by Rasmussen. Only 25 percent of swing voters support the measure.

The 500,000 number matches the numbers in HR 1773, a guest-worker bill drafted in 2013 by Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican.

HR 1773 was approved by Goodlatte’s judiciary committee last June, on a vote of 20 to 16. It would allow up to 750,000 of the “H-2C” visa workers to be resident in the U.S., and they could work as minimum wage crop-pickers, machine operators, truckers, warehouse workers, and as slaughterhouse and cannery crews. The bill is backed by lobbyists for farms and meat-packers. Democrats oppose the measure because it does not allow the guest workers to become citizens.

The swing voters’ opposition to Goodlatte’s plan is similar to opposition from other groups needed by the GOP. Sixty-nine percent of GOP respondents, 71 percent of tea party people and 65 percent of likely voters who “somewhat disapprove” of Obama also oppose allowing 500,000 foreign workers.

The inflow of guest workers is supported by 23 percent of Republicans, 21 percent of tea party people, and 20 percent of people who “somewhat disapprove” of Obama. That’s roughly 3 to 1 opposition among GOP and swing-voters.

Goodlatte’s proposed importation of 500,000 working-class replacements is supported only by progressive groups. Liberals back the outsourcing policy by 42 percent to 40 percent. People who earn above $200,000 a year back the replacement-worker policy by 46 percent to 45 percent. People who “strongly approve” of Obama support the wage-reducing policy by 49 percent to 45 percent.

Last summer, Vermont’s Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders also opposed the large-scale import of foreign workers, but he caved under pressure from fellow Democrats.

African Americans oppose the Goodlatte guest-worker plan by 58 percent to 22 percent.

The establishment’s support for more low-wage workers is also championed in the established media. For example, Greg Sargent, a progressive blogger at the Washington Post, has urged business groups to pressure GOP legislators to back the Senate’s June immigration bill, which would spike legal immigration to 30 million over the next 10 years, and also roughly double the inflow of guest-workers for jobs sought by American teenagers, African-Americans, recent immigrants and unemployed parents.

In the House, “the real action that matters [on immigration] will have to come from the center-right groups: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; growers associations and tech interests out west; [and] evangelicals” Sargent wrote on Valentine’s Day.

“Will they step up and make it clear to those gettable Republicans that their [political] support this fall is contingent on whether they make a serious effort to pressure the GOP leadership to act?” he urged.

In contrast to the established media, upstart conservative publications are highlighting the impact of low-wage labor on Americans, echoing the influential “muckraker” journalists that exposed abuse of American workers in canneries and slaughterhouses during the early 1900s.

The Rasmussen poll is one of the few independent surveys that quiz voters about their attitudes towards guest-workers.

Industry-funded polls usually focus on the less controversial issue of amnesty, where they use questions to generate apparent more support for conditional amnesties, in which illegals are required to pay taxes and integrated into society.

However, those number likely overstate public support for new immigration and for guest-workers.

Prior Rasmussen polls show that few Americans are informed by the media about the scale and impact of immigration. Only 10 percent of respondents in a May survey knew that roughly one million legal immigrants arrive each year to complete for jobs. Thirty-two percent guessed the inflow is 500,000 or less, and only 7 percent believe it is more than 2.5 million per year. Fifty-one percent of 1,000 respondent in the poll said they don’t know how many people come into the country, said the Rasmussen survey. (RELATED: Rasmussen poll shows public knows little about immigration)

The public’s lack of information, however, turns into distrust. An October 2013 poll by Rasmussen showed that only 5 percent of likely voters “say the government is ‘Very Likely’ to secure the border if it’s part of legislation that would give legal status to those already here illegally,” according to a Rasmussen statement. Sixty-five percent says the government is unlikely to secure the border, and 24 percent say it is “Not At All Likely.”

Few industry groups survey the public’s attitudes about new workers. However, a February survey funded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg produced a poll showing apparently high support for foreign workers.

But the respondents were nudged towards approval with favorable languages, such as the claim that immigrant workers  are “needed.” The nudging matches the demand by Zuckerbeg and other high-tech moguls for easier hiring of foreign university graduates.

For example, Zuckerberg’s survey asked respondents: “if you support a variety of measures to attract different types of workers needed in the U.S. … [such as] allowing non-agricultural industries to fill low-skilled positions with workers on temporary, revocable visas as long as they prove they tried to hire Americans first.” That question prompted approval from 80 percent of GOP supporters and 83 percent of Democratic supporters.

However, opposition quickly rose when respondents were indirectly reminded about unemployment and job prospects for teenagers. Opposition doubled to 34 percent when respondents were asked to allow “more lower-skill immigrants as guest workers in industries with labor shortages, like agriculture and construction.”

NumbersUSA, which advocates for fewer immigrant workers, used a similar poll last August to nudge people towards vocal opposition to new workers.

Sixty percent of respondents said they believe strongly that American companies “should try harder to recruit and train … [black, Latino, young and disabled] unemployed Americans before seeking new foreign workers.” Only two percent strongly disagreed with the requirement to hire Americans first. (RELATED: Group pushes poll showing two percent support for immigration bill)

Voters’ opposition to new workers is nearly universal because the terms used in the poll are “more emotional” than prior polls sponsored by NumbersUSA, said Roy Beck, the group’s director. “But the [terms] are also accurate, aren’t they?” he added.

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