BROWNSVILLE, March 19 - State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., has filed legislation to set up a guest worker program in Texas similar to that adopted by the state of Utah.
Under Senate Bill 1336, the Governor of Texas would be able to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the government of a state in Mexico to bring skilled and unskilled workers into Texas.
Through the Migrant Worker Visa Pilot Project, Texas businesses most in need of hired help would be able to obtain legal foreign migrant workers through use of United States nonimmigrant visas. If the pilot program is successful, it could be expanded to other states in Mexico or other countries.
“We have a worker shortage. We need to finally do something significant in that regard, not just for our benefit but for our neighbors to the south,” Lucio said.
The Brownsville Democrat said he is getting very positive reaction from the employers he has spoken with. “The business leaders I have spoken to are very excited about this legislation. I was on the phone late last night with one outside of the Rio Grande Valley who desperately needs workers,” Lucio said.
Texas, more than many states, has relied heavily on undocumented immigrants to move the state forward in recent times, particularly the industries of agriculture, construction, hotel and catering, and home help. Lucio says his bill will help companies in these industries and others hire undocumented workers in legal way. He said they would be required to provide health insurance for the workers.
A byproduct of the program, Lucio believes, is that undocumented immigration from Mexico could be reduced. “I feel very strongly that if we do this legally, working within current federal work visa guidelines, and bring in guest workers it will cut back on illegal immigration,” he said. “It will show our neighbors to the south that we are very much interested in providing opportunities for them to make some money and go back home and care for their families. It would take people out of the shadows.”
The fact that the legislation has been filed halfway through the legislative session does not mean its chances of success have been lessened, Lucio said. “We are going to have a lot of players at the table and we might see something significant happen in a short period of time.”
Lucio described how the guest worker program would work. He said a Texas Commission on Immigration and Migration would be set up comprising 26 members. Many of the appointments to this commission would be made by the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker.
Lucio said that among other things the commission would advise the governor and the legislature on proposed legislation related to immigration and encourage a comprehensive, coordinated, and sustainable state response to issues related to immigration. Among the recommendations the commission may make is whether the current caps on the H-2B U.S. nonimmigrant visas should be raised and whether the wait time to receive H-2B United States nonimmigrant visas should be shortened.
Lucio said his legislation would have to be compatible with the Immigration and Nationality Act. He said Texas businesses wishing to hire a migrant worker through the pilot project would need to demonstrate that there are insufficient workers where that labor is to be performed who are able, willing, qualified, and available to work. He noted that the massive Eagle Ford Shale play is taking workers away from many towns and cities in South Texas, leaving banks without tellers and school districts without drivers.
“Eagle Ford Shale is producing a lot of good, high paying jobs. The top ones may be taken by those already in the workforce. But there are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of other jobs that are being established. Those in this guest worker program could qualify for. They would gladly do the job at minimum wage or more,” Lucio said.
Lucio wants the incoming Mexican workers to meet the requirements of federal law with regard to eligibility for a U.S. nonimmigrant visa, to pass a criminal background check, and undergo standardized testing to make sure they have the skill set and education for the job to be filled. “They would have to show some proficiency in the English language and we would need them to prove their health,” Lucio said.
Successful applicants would be issued a tamper-proof identification card by the Texas Workforce Commission that includes personal information, photo, fingerprint, visa number, and an expiration date. The State of the Texas and the state in Mexico providing the workers would be responsible for ensuring workers do not stay on once their work is complete.
Asked if his legislation could be compared the old Bracero Program, Lucio said he believes his guest worker program is “a more sophisticated version of that.” He added: “We want to legalize those that are working in the workplace. We want to show the world that we are going to afford them the same opportunities we do our own workers. That is important to me.”
In 2011, state Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, filed legislation to set up a guest worker program similar to that passed by the state of Utah. It did not gain traction.