Sanders and Sessions: Odd Couple of Immigration Debate

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on June 14, 2013

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) have become the odd couple of the immigration reform debate.

Until Thursday's Senate session on the immigration reform bill, the most outspoken defender of American workers against low-wage foreign competition had been the Alabama Republican.

But late Thursday afternoon, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, who is widely regarded as the most liberal member of the Senate, weighed in with a full-throated condemnation of guest worker programs which he condemns as a betrayal of American workers.

Those programs, Sanders said, are "being widely abused by employers throughout this country" who push for cheap-labor favors like those included in the immigration reform bill.

His voice rising in anger, Sanders declared that: "At a time when nearly 13 percent of the American people do not have a full-time job, at a time when the middle class continues to disappear, and at a time when tens of millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages, it makes no sense to me that the immigration reform bill includes a massive increase in temporary guest worker programs that will allow large corporations to import and bring into this country hundreds of thousands of temporary blue-collar and white-collar guest workers from overseas."

Sanders was particularly outraged about the State Department's Summer Work Travel program, which was the subject of this CIS report. He scoffed at State's claim that the program, which every year brings about 100,000 foreign college students to work seasonally with J-1 visas, is a cultural exchange.

Sanders agreed with critics who denounce SWT as a cheap labor program dressed up as cultural exchange, even as it generates more than $100 million in annual income for sponsoring agencies who charge the foreign workers to be in the program. It is also a windfall for employers who pay no Social Security, Medicare, or federal unemployment taxes for foreign workers.

"This program is a real disservice to the young people of this country," said Sanders, calling for it to be abolished.

"It seems to me terribly wrong that we have programs like this J-1 Summer Work Travel Program … which brings students from all over the world into the United States to take jobs that young Americans want to do," he said.

Sanders said the program encourages American employers to turn their back on American workers. He said the promoters tell employers they "don't need to hire kids in your community anymore. You don't have to reach out to minority kids who desperately need a job, to kids in Vermont who want to put away a few bucks to go to college. ... We will help you bring young people from all over the world to do these jobs."

At the instigation of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate bill includes a provision that would charge a $500 fee to the U.S. sponsoring organizations, which currently collect about $1,100 in program fees from each worker. The sponsors lobby is mobilizing its members to have that provision killed. Their attempt to defend the program as a means of encouraging international peace and understanding is likely to be complicated by Sanders' speech.

Sanders said he would sponsor an amendment to the immigration legislation that would provide $1.5 billion for a jobs program for American youth.