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Don't Look For A Congressional Guest Worker Solution Anytime Soon

Bob Beck

This month babies being ripped away from their parents dominated the immigration debate in Washington, but Wyoming lawmakers are hoping the conversation can turn to the state’s need for guest workers.

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill tried to avoid any immigration debate this election year, but moderate Republicans in the House forced party leaders to bring up legislation to deal with the so-called Dreamers – those kids brought here by their undocumented parents. Then Trump changed the conversation when officials started forcefully separating children from their parents.

Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi said he’s glad the president eventually ended that family separation policy on its own though lawmakers may still have to pass a bill to ensure no president does that again.

"That’s a huge change and now there are people trying to figure out, there are probably half a dozen different bills that people want their name on in order to do it and I’ll be looking at all of them and I think that some kind of a solution will be arrived at."

Enzi and others are now hoping the conversation can move to the biggest needs back home: Visas for guest workers.  

"That’s been a consistent problem in Wyoming. We have a lot of people that are experts in certain areas that come in for a short period of time and then go back to their countries and they fill a definite need in Wyoming. And one of the difficulties is they keep trying to downsize the quotas."

Enzi said he’s been glad to hear Trump call for a better system of targeted visas for guest workers instead of the current visa lottery that randomly puts immigrants from across the globe in line for a visa.

"I did notice that the president was also saying that we want the kind of skills that we need in the country. And that’s something that I’ve been pushing for a long time too. Instead of just a flat first come first served, there are needs that we have and we ought to fill those needs first and we’re at a low unemployment mark right now."

Most Democrats also want more highly skilled and specialty visas but they want other things too.  So they aren’t willing to address the guest workers without addressing some of their priorities.

Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva said they aren’t willing to address guest workers solely.

"Yeah, then we have no leverage."

 Grijalva added that his community desperately needs more temporary visas, but he says his party will only support that if the GOP deals with Dreamers and the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

"All the growers there and the ranching communities in Arizona, all the ranchers and you keep going all across this country, anywhere where there's significant agriculture, they need guest workers. But, a stand-alone bill without dealing with the Dreamer Act, without dealing with even this whole separation issue, I'm not even asking for comprehensive reform, dealing with those two things."

Democrats and GOP have been locked in a battle over border funding, especially over the president’s demands for wall funding, but Republicans say they also want to turn the debate to bringing in the workers desperately needed into the country. Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney said there are different issues to address.

"You know we're in a situation today I think where we've got to both stop the illegal immigration. We got to secure our border. But we also have to fix our legal immigration system."

Now with the unemployment rate so low, there are actually many job openings that many Americans are too skilled for, which Cheney acknowledged is a huge problem.

"And so I think you know people say this, the system is not working as well as it should. The system doesn't allow us to be able to bring people temporarily. The government hasn't been as responsive as they need to be particularly in circumstances where a lot of these folks have tried to find Americans to do these jobs and haven't been able to. And so they're facing a situation where they can't find people to do the work that they need to have done."

 Even though Democrats like Congressman Grijalva support the call for new visas for workers, they say they’re not going to allow the GOP majorities to only pass an immigration bill that’s low hanging fruit.  

"Then that's cherry picking," said Grijalva.

But Cheney and other Republicans don’t trust Democrats these days.

"I think that you know you've got a situation as we get closer to the election where there sometimes is a lot of lip service paid by folks on the Democratic side to cooperating to get things done. But then when you look at what's actually going on they're not too interested in doing that."

With trust so low on Capitol Hill, it seems unlikely a new bipartisan guest worker visa program can pass the Senate as a stand-alone bill. And Republican leaders are eager to turn their attention to any issue other than immigration, which means Wyoming’s ranching and hospitality industries may feel the brunt of Washington inaction this election year.

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