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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. have reportedly struck a deal on key elements of immigration reform, agreeing on pay levels and types of jobs for guest workers. The deal paves the way for a bipartisan group of Senators to introduce a sweeping reform bill when they return from recess in mid-April. We examine the back-room bargaining between these powerful organizations and what their buy-in could mean for the hospitality and construction industries.
- David Nakamura White House Correspondent, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.
MR. PAUL BROWNLater in the broadcast, acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates on "The Accursed," her latest gothic novel about accurse. Well, it's much more than accursed. But what accurse? That's for later. First, with immigration reform on the president's priority list and Congress poised to act, a new backroom deal announced over the weekend appears to boost the likelihood of success.
NNAMDIThe U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have reportedly agreed on a wage and employment plan for immigrants who come to the U.S. legally on guest worker visas. A lack of agreement between these two powerful interests help sink prior reform efforts. So this deal is an attempt by senators to head off another stalemate between the two. The agreement would affect wages for guest workers in the hospitality and construction industries.
NNAMDIIt would set up a new federal bureau to monitor supply and demand for guest workers and set targets for the number of visas that would be granted each year. But small businesses and some in the construction industry are still not satisfied. Joining us from studios at the Washington Post to talk about this is David Nakamura, White House correspondent with the Washington Post. David, how's it going?
MR. DAVID NAKAMURAHi, Kojo. It's going great. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIGood to talk to you. A backroom agreement between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO apparently clears the way for this immigration reform bill to be introduced in the Senate. David, why are these two groups such important players in this debate?
NAKAMURAWell, Kojo, as you can imagine, if you have a situation which this immigration bill is going to set up where you want to try to address future immigrants who want to come here, you want to create a program where they'd come for low-paying menial labor jobs where Americans are not available. This is an issue that both the chamber and obviously the unions are concerned about.
NAKAMURAThe chamber wants to have the flexibility to hire workers, especially when the economy is good and Americans are, you know, employed and they don't have enough people interested in these jobs. You want to find foreigners who are willing to come and take these jobs. The unions, on the other hand, are saying, wait a minute, if you let foreigners come for these jobs, number one, Americans might get frozen out.
NAKAMURANumber two, American wages might get dragged down if you're paying these folks less. So both have significant interest. This was not an easy place to get these two in the same page. They apparently have a verbal agreement worked out late Friday night with Chuck Schumer of New York, one of the senators involved. And, you know, it's somewhat complex, but it's a system where, over the years starting at 2015 when this program launches, if it does, you'll have a sort of increase, rise and fall of number of guest workers coming over here for this program, depending on the economy.
NNAMDIIf you have questions for David Nakamura about this deal, call us at 800-433-8850. One of the key elements they've reportedly agreed on is pay for so-called guest workers, low-skilled immigrants who often work at hotels and restaurants and in construction jobs. Why has that been so contentious and what would this deal offer those workers?
NAKAMURAThe pay issue was one of the final hold-ups. They agreed on sort of the number of people who'd be involved in this. But the pay was always, you know, the bigger issue once that got settled in. What the issue was -- it's a fairly complicated pay system. But in a nutshell, the chamber was initially saying, hey, we're going to pay these folks minimum wage, again, for these low-skilled jobs.
NAKAMURAThe labor unions were saying, wait a minute, if you do that, it's going to drag all of our wages down for American workers, so let's go one step above the median wages for Americans in each industry. And they eventually settled on sort of an existing government formula based on minimum wages, state minimum wage but also industry scales and regional norms. It's called the greater or actual or prevailing wages. It's a technical term.
NAKAMURABut it was okay with the unions. They've settled on that. I know that some small businesses are still concerned about that pay scale, but I think this is what is going to go forward with the senators' approval. And ultimately that's what matters, these eight senators put their names on this bill. And that's what's going to initially be rolled out. And I think that's where we are.
NNAMDIWhat types of jobs would be included in the guest worker category and why would certain types of construction jobs be excluded?
NAKAMURAYeah. A lot in the hospitality industry, as you mentioned, waiters, I think also some of the lower-end health care jobs and daycares and things like that, the janitorial services as well. These are lower-skilled jobs in places that particularly, they just can't find enough Americans to take them, according to the business community. This program does not include agricultural workers, which is being negotiated completely separately.
NAKAMURAIt's still in the bigger bill. But it's a separate entity going on there. And the construction is the biggest one that's still not happy, the construction industry. They're part of the Chamber of Commerce, but they also have additional lobbyists looking out specifically for their interests because the chamber is so big. And what happened was the unions fought really hard to keep the construction workers jobs at a minimum in this bill for foreigners and specifically the higher skilled ones, such as electricians that are a bit higher paying.
NAKAMURAThe unions said, wait a minute, we want to reserve those for our own American workers. So they've been severely limited under this. And the construction industries are still not happy from what I understand. And I think even if this goes forward with these eight senators and they put something on the floor or the committee later this month, I think you're still going to see pressure from those lobbyists on the construction industry to try to get more slots for their, you know, their companies to be able to hire the foreigners. And so I don't know that this debate is completely finished yet.
NNAMDIWe're talking with David Nakamura. He is White House correspondent for the Washington Post. He joins us from studios at the Washington Post to discuss the essential backroom bargaining that has taken place over immigration. David, why are agricultural jobs not included in this deal?
NAKAMURAThey have different unions, number one. So the AFL-CIO and the chamber don't necessarily negotiate this. Also, I think there's a better understanding of the needs of agricultural communities. They do have severe shortages. So it's being addressed as a separate program for visas and an ability to sort of beef up those industries. It's separate because I think, in part, they don't want to put the two together because if there's a certain cap on the number of visas, you know, some industries might get more and then the agricultural will be left with less.
NAKAMURASo I think they're just separately doing that. They have different, like I said, different unions and different issues. But I think both sides see the agricultural piece as definitely a given that's going to be in this bill and is very important to have there. It's -- but like I said, that's going to have their own caps and their own numbers and things like that. And I think most of that is pretty much settled.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-433-8850. What do you think about a deal to raise pay above minimum wage for immigrant guest workers? 800-422-8850. David, I'm glad you mentioned caps because another element of this deal is the number of guest worker visas that would be granted for temporary workers to enter the country. Business apparently wants a lot, laborer wants fewer. Why do they have contrary positions?
NAKAMURAWell, the business community is saying, look at the past history. You had -- in 1986, just to set the stage, was the last time -- 1986 was the last time we had a big comprehensive immigration reform. And the problem, according to the business community, was that they did not address the future immigrants that would be coming into the country for work reasons and these lower skilled jobs.
NAKAMURAAnd so you have, over time, this huge influx of illegal immigrants coming over the border for these jobs, of the 11 million people here who are undocumented in the country. A vast majority come for some of these lower-paying jobs and up to, according to the business community, up to 500,000 a year during peak employment times when the economy is really going well. And so, the business community is saying we need up to 500,000.
NAKAMURAThey're pushing for 400,000 visas a year in this program. But the labor community is saying, wait a minute, you know, we just come out of a recession. You know, unemployment is high. We don't need all these. That's not true. This is just the way for businesses to come in and hire people at lower salaries. So, it's a big fight. Business started at 400,000 visas. And labor started at 10,000.
NAKAMURAThey've agreed to start the program at 20,000 and build up potentially to as many as 200,000, splitting the difference. But that's going to take many years and it's going to depend on this special new bureau that's going to be created under this program if the senators' bill goes forward.
NNAMDIHow would a new government bureau on immigration and the labor market mediate between the two interests?
NAKAMURAWell, you know, the idea here is that this would be sort of a quasi independent government agency in the federal government that would gather and really analyze employment data in a very sophisticated way over months at a time, not just a quick snapshot but be completely analyzing this all the time. And they would focus on the, you know, the unemployment figures, the employment rates but also in regional economies, in industry norms.
NAKAMURALooking at various industries, so that business can't say, hey, we just need open-ended visas. It might be that certain industries do, other do not. And so the idea is that this new bureau, if it's created, would be very sophisticated in analyzing this data and have, you know, various thresholds to meet before you authorize more visas. And so, then that bureau would make a recommendation.
NAKAMURAAnd then that would be the new annual cap for next year. And so, again, this starts at 20,000. It's going to work up to 75,000 visas. Then this new bureau at that point will be up and running and they would make decisions based on that from that point. One interesting fact, though, is that this is extremely costly apparently to gather this data, to have the manpower to do it. They're not completely sure how to pay for it.
NAKAMURAThey're talking about, you know, charging fees for visa fees for people coming into the country to help pay for it. But that could be also a sticking point. You know, in the upcoming debate considering where we are right now with the sequester and other, you know, trying to cut the government spending. So, this is very -- each piece of this is extremely complicated and this will continue to be even if the AFL-CIO and the chamber have signed off on it.
NNAMDIHow would the path to citizenship for these guest workers who enter the country legally be different from the path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal or undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.?
NAKAMURAWell, I think the timeframe -- there's a couple of different things. There's the family visa program which currently exists. The legal channels to come in the country because you get sponsored by a U.S. family member and you're a foreigner who, you know, related to them and trying to get in. There's a huge backlog there as well. More than four million people around the world waiting.
NAKAMURAAnd then Congress wants to also address that and clear that. Those folks are waiting in line and there's a certain number of visas each year for different categories of your kids or your siblings or your cousins and so on. And that line is very long. They want to clear that out. Secondly, the people coming on these employment visas would come in more quickly. The people in the country illegally, you know, Congress and the White House both want to make sure that they, you know, they sort of, quote, "wait in line" because they've come illegally.
NAKAMURAAnd, you know, a lot of the resistance to allowing these people to stay in is that they shouldn't be able to have an advantage over people who are doing this properly. So there's going to be a long waiting period for these folks, as many as 10 years just to get legal status, I think, under the Senate plan and three more years until they get citizenship for a total of 13-year wait from the time they start applying.
NAKAMURAThey'd have to reach various thresholds, these illegal immigrants. You know, learning English, paying taxes and so on before they could even achieve citizenship. So it's going to be a longer wait for those folks. But then they're going to -- and at the same time trying to clear out the backlog of these family visas and then add new employment for both low-skilled and high-skilled companies that need foreign expertise and foreign workers.
NNAMDIWe still hear about a lot of Americans who have lost their jobs in the recession and cannot find new ones. Will that affect public support for a program to bring in workers from abroad?
NAKAMURAAbsolutely. This is going to be like a, you know, 600-page bill. It's going to be complicated. You know, it's going to have rules on these employment programs. But it's going to absolutely be part of the debate. There's a number of senators and of course in the House that don't support overhauling this, don't support allowing the folks here illegally to stay. But, you know, and I think you're going to see a lot of pressure from folks who say regardless of what the specific rules are, hey, you know, we just shouldn't be adding more workers at a time when a lot of Americans are looking for work.
NAKAMURANow they may not be in the same industries. You know, there's a big sense also on the high tech side that Americans are not going into high tech fields enough to support some of the new industries that rely on high tech skilled engineers and computer programmers to the numbers that they need. So they're going to beef up that as well. And companies, there's lots of pressures from the business world saying, we need these workers. We have to have it.
NAKAMURASo you have conflicting pressures too because some in the business world are pressuring Republicans to get on board. And then, you know, at the same time, if they do get on board on more workers, then will they accept the path to citizenship, which is also part of the bill that Democrats are pushing. Lots of different competing influences. And you see a number of the senators already wrestling with their public statements on how much they support it versus, you know, their cautionary notes.
NAKAMURAWe wrote about Marco Rubio today, he's part of this group of senators working on it but he's very cautious in public about how much he says about it.
NNAMDIHere's Mary in Washington, D.C. Mary, you're on the air, go ahead please.
MARYWell, hello. Thank you very much for allowing me to participate. I really enjoy your show. And this is fascinating and extremely, you know, important topic that you're dealing with today. I actually had a question and a suggestion. My question was that with respect to the deals for the salary or the wage levels for the guest workers that's being pounded out, why is that those jobs and those industries that you mentioned in the deal is agriculture, is waitressing and other high-tech, I guess. Are the high tech jobs...
NNAMDINo. We're talking about construction and we're talking about the...
MARYRight. The low -- relatively low-scaled jobs. So what I don't understand is that I think that one way of looking -- a different way of looking at it might be to look at how much the businesses are willing to pay in terms of the salary. If they're willing to pay a living wage I think that there would be perhaps more Americans that are currently unemployed that would be willing to take those jobs...
NNAMDIMary, I think you just -- David Nakamura can validate that. I think you just enunciated the position of organized labor. Is that correct, David?
NAKAMURAAbsolutely. Absolutely. And they fear that, you know, they -- that the business want a low-skilled worker program with lots of visas to bring in folks who will take these jobs for low pay and that foreigners are going to come and do that with a better opportunity, even here than they have back home. There's lots of evidence that, you know, in any cases that could be true. But, you know, actually I should say one point -- not to get too complicated about this program -- but under the senate plan, you know, they'd have this certain number of visas each year, like we just said.
NAKAMURAThere's also something called a safety valve where if companies -- you know, they've reached that limit of 20,000 visa the first year, companies can hire more low-wage folks -- except for construction -- companies can do so if they are willing to pay more. And so there's going to be actually like sort of a 50 percent to 70 percent more pay than you can go above the cap in a complicated way, then those extra additional slots will count against the next year's cap and so on.
NAKAMURABut it's almost like a baseball, you know, luxury tax where the Yankees can keep paying people above the salary cap because they're willing to do so. And so companies that are willing to pay more are going to be able to hire slightly more folks under this, even above the cap limits because they are willing to pay more.
NNAMDIAnd this deal leaves some players out. Small business in the construction industry don't seem to be particularly happy. Are they likely to speak out against this plan?
NAKAMURAYou know, it's interesting. I was talking to them just this weekend, even after things were announced and they were reserving judgment. My sense is small business folks are coming onboard more quickly than construction. I think that's the biggest holdout. And they're a pretty powerful industry. So they're reserving judgment. They want to see the written -- like a lot of people they want to see the written parameters of this before they make reaction.
NAKAMURAThey have -- I will say just a few weeks ago construction was really upset and they were ready to speak out even more so. What I'm hearing now is they've made some concessions. We'll see if it's enough. They want more so I think you're likely -- whether they speak out publicly or they're doing more work behind the scenes, there's still a chance for any bill that's going to be offered to be amended. And there's going to be big fights on this and other parts of the bill.
NNAMDIMary, thank you very much for your call. David Nakamura is White House correspondent for the Washington Post. You mentioned baseball, so I should underscore that it's opening day. I remember in basketball you had a decent jump shot. How's your bracket doing, David?
NAKAMURAMy bracket has been blown up...
NAKAMURA...just like pretty much everybody. But it's been exciting, no question about it. You know, I started as a sports writer. I used to cover March Madness, so it's...
NAKAMURA...been a bit nostalgic. The president -- I just noticed the president was shooting baskets over at the White House today. I got a pool report that said he was 0 for 14 in front of the Easter egg roll kids. And he actually was 2 for 22 on the basketball court. And handed the ball to a 10-year-old who then sunk a layup, so the president got schooled.
NNAMDIWell, my bracket got blown up too so there's -- misery loves company. David Nakamura...
NAKAMURAAbsolutely, but I love it.
NNAMDI...thank you very much for joining us. We're going to take a short break.
NNAMDIWhen we come back, acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates on her new gothic novel "The Accursed." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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