Secretary Elaine Chao

 
 
 

U.S./Mexico Chamber of Commerce Speech

Thank you, Alberto [Zapanta, Chairman, U.S. Mexico Chamber of Commerce].

I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk to you today about the President’s proposals to reform and strengthen our immigration laws and establish a viable Temporary Worker Program.

Strong ties between Mexico and the United States are so important to our countries. Mexico is the second largest export market for U.S. goods and services, the third largest exporter of goods to the U.S. and a top oil supplier to the U.S. market. The President places a high priority on the bilateral relationship between our two countries. And he recognizes that trade is a powerful tool that opens up new markets and create jobs, hope and opportunity for all.

As many of you in this room no doubt know, the American economy continues to grow at a steady pace and our labor market is healthy. 2004 ended with an annual GDP growth rate of 4 percent, which exceeds the annual average of the last 25 years. The overall monthly unemployment rate remains at 5.2 percent, which is lower than the average of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

In April, the economy added 274,000 new payroll jobs. That is a significant contribution to the 3.5 million jobs that have been added since June 2003. And it is interesting to note that at the end of March 2005, there were 3.6 million unfilled job openings in the United States. That is a reflection of the skills gap, or the mismatch in the economy between available jobs and worker’s skills.

Some industries are facing perennial labor shortages. Labor shortages in some areas exist for an entire calendar year, such as the demand for computer engineers and doctors in rural areas. Other labor shortages exist for only a few months each year, coinciding with agricultural harvests and tourist seasons. Foreign workers often help fill some of these shortages. But the current system of hiring foreign workers and bringing them into the U.S. is complex and burdensome.

As the U.S. economy has grown over the past 15 years, so have the opportunities for foreign-born workers. From 1990 to 2004, foreign-born workers increased from 9 percent of the civilian labor force to 14.5 percent. America now has 21.4 million foreign-born workers. That is a 50 percent increase in just 15 years.

As you know, Congress has put caps on the number of visas that can be issued in any given year for H-1B, or high skilled workers, and H-2B, or non-agricultural workers. In recent years, Congress has attempted to adjust these caps to meet demand. But in some cases, the annual caps have been reached in the first few months of the year. That situation has produced challenges for employers, especially those who rely on foreign temporary workers. In the past few months, Congress has once again adjusted the caps on these visa programs. But it is clear that the system is in need of a major overhaul.

Recognizing these challenges, the President has proposed reforming our current system for admitting and employing temporary foreign workers.

The President’s proposal is based on five basic principles:

  * Controlling Our Borders: A new temporary worker program must support ongoing efforts to enhance homeland security.
  * Matching a Willing Worker with a Willing Employer: When no American worker is available and willing to take a job, the program should provide opportunities for foreign-born workers to fill those slots in a streamlined, efficient and timely process.
  * Protecting the Rights of Legal Immigrants: The program should not permit formerly undocumented workers to gain an advantage over those who have followed the rules in coming to this country.
  * Promoting Compassion: To prevent exploitation, the program should grant currently working undocumented aliens the opportunity to obtain temporary worker status. Participants would be able to travel back and forth between their home and the U.S. without fear of being denied re-entry into America.
  * Providing Incentives to Return Home: The program will require the return of temporary workers to their home country after their period of work has concluded.

Our ability to implement these principles will be strengthened by the experience that the Departments of Homeland Security, State, Agriculture and Labor already have from administering the current temporary worker programs. Over the past several months, the Department of Labor has been working with Homeland Security to streamline the labor market certification process.

The Department of Labor is also charged with protecting the rights and safety of all workers in this country, including those who are foreign born. The Department of Labor takes this responsibility very seriously.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in the Hoffman Plastics case, the Labor Department initiated an aggressive enforcement and outreach effort to ensure that undocumented workers receive a full day’s pay for a full day’s work. It reinforces this Administration’s commitment to enforcing workplace protection laws on behalf of workers without regard to immigration status.

Moreover, one of the Department’s key enforcement priorities is ensuring compliance in low-wage industries that employ vulnerable workers, many of whom are immigrants. In fiscal year 2004 alone, the Department collected more than $43 million in back wages for 84,897 workers in selected low-wage industries. This was an increase of over 22 percent in the number of low-wage workers receiving back wages since fiscal year 2001.

In FY 2004, the Department also collected $465,000 for 1,600 workers under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA).

These enforcement and compliance assistance efforts are important tools to prevent the exploitation of foreign-born workers. And strong enforcement also helps to prevent fraud and abuse in temporary worker programs.

In addition, at my direction, the Department has made immigrant workplace safety a priority. As a part of this effort, the Department launched the Hispanic Worker Taskforce. It has developed and delivered a variety of informative, educational and cooperative programs and materials for the Hispanic community. A wide variety of worker protection publications are now printed in Spanish, including an easy-to-use publication that describes worker rights. And I was proud to host the Hispanic Safety and Health Summit in July 2004.

These efforts are paying off. Although any fatality or injury is one too many, workplace fatalities among Hispanic workers declined in 2002 for the first time in seven years. And fatalities among Hispanic workers are down 11.6 percent since 2001.
Finally, let me say a few words about the benefits of the President’s program to our economy and our country. A revised temporary worker program will support:

  * A More Prosperous Economy: By allowing workers to find jobs and employers to find workers, quickly and simply.
  * A More Secure Homeland: By identifying foreign visitors and immigrants and making clear the nature of their intentions.
  * A More Compassionate System: By bringing workers out of the shadows so that they will be ensured a full day’s pay for a full day’s work and have the benefit of other worker protections.

Implementing these changes will be challenging. But by working together, we can ensure that our nation’s workforce needs are met and that all workers receive the pay they have earned and the protections they deserve.

Now, I will be pleased to take a few questions.