MPI Issue Brief on Low-Wage Visas

MPI Issue Brief on Low-Wage Visas

"The current US legal immigration system includes few visas for low-skilled* workers — 5,000 visas for lawful permanent residence out of an estimated 140,000 employment-based green cards annually — and employers have relied heavily on an unauthorized workforce in many low-skilled occupations.

Restrictions on the legal channels to recruit low-skilled foreign workers in both temporary and permanent positions, coupled with businesses’ continued ability to employ unauthorized workers undetected, are often held responsible for the enormous growth in the unauthorized population during the 1990s and 2000s until the recent economic crisis. 

The issue of “future flow” of legal workers at the low-skilled level — its size, wage and labor protections, and conditions for temporary or permanent residency — has been a major point of debate as bipartisan Senate and House groups finalize their immigration reform proposals. In particular, it has been the focus of lengthy talks between labor and the US Chamber of Commerce, resulting initially in a shared statement of principles and later an accord for a new visa category.

In Legal Immigration Policies for Low-Skilled Foreign Workers, Migration Policy Institute Senior Policy Analyst Madeleine Sumption and President Demetrios Papademetriou detail the questions that policymakers must grapple with when designing programs for admission of low-skill workers, for temporary as well as permanent entry. 

The issue brief, the second in a new series launched by MPI focusing on key aspects of the current immigration debate, discusses visas for nonagricultural work; agricultural employment is the subject of a forthcoming issue brief. The first brief focused on the “back of the line”— whether there is one line, who is in it, wait times, countries of origin, and more. 

These briefs and other key MPI research and data resources on point to the current debate are accessible at We invite you to check out this resource now and in the weeks to come." - MPI, Apr. 2013.

[* Let's be honest: Back-breaking manual labor jobs take lots of skill, just not a lot of credentials.]