Workers such as Mexican-born Sebastian Martinez, pictured at a Florida jobsite in a 2006 file photo, face low wages and poor benefits as well as resentment from unemployed U.S. workers.

Federal legislation to correct an immigration system that has undermined building industry competition, skewed construction hiring practices and compromised worker safety will be front and center for House and Senate members—and lobbyists—over the next few weeks. The bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 21 after four days of hearings by a 13-5 bipartisan vote, now moves to the floor for consideration by the full Senate.

Since mid-April, when the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" unveiled an immigration bill stuffed with compromises and trade-offs, the construction sector has focused on the "W" visa, a proposed guest-worker designation that would limit to 15,000 the number of immigrants allowed to work in construction each year.

That cap, lobbied for and now cherished by the AFL-CIO's Building & Construction Trades Dept. as a protector of U.S. workers, is strongly opposed by the Associated General Contractors (AGC), the Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC) and pro-management legislators.

"We sure hope [the cap] gets eliminated," says Jeff Shoaf, the AGC's senior executive director of government affairs. "The 15,000 number is arbitrary and is not based in any way on the flow of immigrant workers the construction industry will need over the next 10 to 20 years."

The construction-related cap is initially even lower, since the total number of three-year, renewable W visas that can be issued for all industries starts at 20,000 in 2015 and, thereafter, rises gradually. Construction's share cannot exceed 33% in any given year, or fewer than 7,000 in 2015.

Other elements of the Senate bill—known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act—provide "significant protection for U.S. workers," says Shoaf. "There are requirements that you hire locally first. You can't bring in any W-visa workers into metropolitan areas where [construction- sector] unemployment is over 8.5%. And you have to pay a substantial fee to be part of the W-visa program," he says. 

In a May 14 letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Geoff Burr, ABC's vice president of federal affairs, said the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the construction industry will need 1.8 million more workers by 2020, "or 225,000 more workers per year through the end of the decade."

Burr said, "We believe that all industries included in the [W-visa] program should have equal access to visas. Putting inflexible restrictions on our industry's use of the W-visa program invites labor shortages that will stifle economic growth."

When the measure comes to the Senate floor, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) plans to amend S. 744 to lift the 15,000-visa cap for construction.

Meanwhile, the House version of immigration reform is not expected to include a construction-specific cap on visas, says Burr.