Risk Management

Alien Nation

President Bush's recently proposed ''temporary-worker program'' offers a legal solution for companies that find themselves in a difficult situation.
Kate O'SullivanMarch 4, 2004

With an estimated 8 million to 10 million undocumented workers in the United States, many businesses are hailing President Bush’s recently proposed “temporary-worker program” as a much-needed step in the right direction. The measure would grant temproary legal status for illegal immigrants already working in the United States, which could be renewed in three-year increments. It also outlines a new mechanism for importing workers from abroad “when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs.”

Opinion is mixed about the impact of the proposal on employer costs. For those that employ undocumented workers at below-minimum wages, payroll costs will probably climb. “I would think companies would at least have to offer prevailing wages,” says David A. Martin, professor of international law at the University of Virginia. Laura Foote Reiff, a partner with Greenberg, Traurig LLP, says that most already follow the legal requirement to pay minium wage, However, Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union says the proposal creates a precarious situation for participating workers looking for a raise, because they run the risk of losing employer sponsorship if they ask for higher wages.

Despite the potential threat of increased payroll costs, Reiff calls the plan “terrific for business,” as it offers a legal solution for companies that find themselves in the difficult position of needing to fill low-wage jobs but worrying about documentation. “Right now you can be fined for hiring workers who are undocumented, or prosecuted for asking for too much documentation,” she says.

The proposal has many critics, including Professor Martin, who says it leaves out important details, including wage and benefit guidelines. Jeff Goldman, chairman of the immigration practice at Boston-based law firm Testa, Hurwitz, & Thibeault LLP, believes the proposal will never become law in its current form, in part because it fails to offer a path to permanent residence.

“This proposal says, ‘Come on down, sign up, tell us your name and address, and agree to be deported three years from today.’ I don’t understand who woulddo that,” he says.

States with the highest number of illegal immigrants in 2000 (the latest available figures)
California 2.2 million
Texas 1.0 million
New York 0.5 million
Illinois 0.4 million
Florida 0.3 million
Source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service