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[Excerpt] Economic indicators confirm that the U.S. economy sunk into a recession in December 2007. Although some economic indicators suggest that growth has resumed, unemployment remains high and is projected to remain so for some time. Historically, international migration ebbs during economic crises; for example, immigration to the United States was at its lowest levels during the Great Depression. While preliminary statistical trends hint at a slowing of migration pressures, it remains unclear how the economic recession of the past two years has affected immigration. Addressing these contentious policy reforms against the backdrop of economic crisis sharpens the social and business cleavages and narrows the range of options.

Some employers maintain that they continue to need the “best and the brightest” workers, regardless of their country of birth, to remain competitive in a worldwide market and to keep their firms in the United States. While support for increasing employment-based immigration may be dampened by the high levels of unemployment, proponents argue that the ability to hire foreign workers is an essential ingredient for economic growth.

Those opposing increases in foreign workers assert that such expansions—particularly during a period of high unemployment—would have a deleterious effect on salaries, compensation, and working conditions of U.S. workers. Others question whether the United States should continue to issue foreign worker visas (particularly temporary visas) during a period of high unemployment and suggest that a moratorium on such visas might be prudent.

The number of foreign workers entering the United States legally has notably increased over the past decade. The number of employment-based legal permanent residents (LPRs) grew from under 100,000 in FY1994 to over 250,000 in FY2005, and dipped to 126,874 in 2009. The number of visas issued to employment-based temporary nonimmigrants rose from just under 600,000 in FY1994 to approximately 1.3 million in FY2007. In FY2009, the number of visas issued to employment-based temporary nonimmigrants dropped slightly to 1.1 million.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) bars the admission of any alien who seeks to enter the U.S. to perform skilled or unskilled labor, unless it is determined that (1) there are not sufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available; and (2) the employment of the alien will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed workers in the United States. The foreign labor certification program in the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is responsible for ensuring that foreign workers do not displace or adversely affect working conditions of U.S. workers.

The 111th Congress has addressed one element of the labor market test for foreign workers issue in §1611 of P.L. 111-5, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which requires companies receiving Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funding to comply with the more rigorous labor market rules of H-1B dependent companies if they hire foreign workers on H-1B visas. Also, §524 of division D of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2010 (P.L. 111-117) authorized the Department of Labor to use its share of the H-1B, H-2B, and L Fraud Prevention and Detection fees to conduct wage and hour enforcement of industries more likely to employ any type of nonimmigrants (not just H-1B, H-2B or L visaholders). Finally, P.L. 111-230 (H.R. 6080) authorized additional fees on firms who have more than 50% of their employees on H-1B or L visas.

This report does not track legislation and will be updated if policies are revised.


Suggested Citation

Wasem, R. E. (2010). Immigration of foreign workers: Labor market tests and protections [Electronic version]. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.