Johnson bill to revamp guest worker visas

He wants states to determine how many, which types of workers needed

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles addressing issues from The Shawano Leader’s recent interview with U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson about what the federal government has accomplished in the last year, and what he hopes will be accomplished in the future.

Immigration is a key issue in the national debate, and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is hoping to refine a system so that states will have more of a say on how long guest workers can work inside their borders.

Johnson introduced a bill in 2017 for a pilot program where states could design a guest worker visa program suited to their needs. Wisconsin, for example, needs farm labor to produce milk and other staples, but farms need those workers 12 months out of the year. The current visa system allows guest workers to work one to 10 months, terms more appropriate for fruit and vegetable than dairy farms.

Johnson, in an interview with The Shawano Leader last week, said he believes the United States’ immigration system is broken. He estimated about 15 percent of the immigrants coming into the United States are the legal laborers, and another 20 percent are refugees or those seeking asylum who don’t go through the proper channels. But the majority — 65 percent, he estimated — are here illegally and not part of the workforce.

“That’s just completely backwards,” Johnson said. “I’m not opposed to refugees and asylees, or some measure of family where you can bring your wife or have children. But not 65 percent (of the immigrants). That’s completely out of bounds.”

The visa bill would still require the State Department to issue the visas, but it would allow individual states to have more control over what types of workers come in, Johnson said.

“They know what areas of the economy they need visas granted for,” Johnson said. “They can set wage rates. The one-size-fits-all model system is not working. I’d rather give the states the power they need to do these kinds of things.”

The United States needs more workers, Johnson acknowledged, pointing out that he doesn’t believe there are too many immigrant workers in the country. He cited a newspaper column written by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, that stated the country needs immigrant workers that are willing to come in and work hard.

Johnson said that getting the right kinds of workers is the third step in helping the economy flourish. He noted the other two, lifting regulations and easing tax burdens, have already been done — the latter through the recent tax reform bill signed into law by President Donald Trump in December.

“It’s hard work, and sometimes it’s unskilled workers,” Johnson said. “We need people who are willing to milk cows or pick vegetables, roof homes, work construction and clean hotels. That’s why we need to be very careful with the people who are already in this country.”

Johnson noted that, of an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, 7-8 million of them are in the country’s workforce.

“We wouldn’t want those people just gone,” he said. “We’ve got to come up with a way, without granting amnesty, that incentivizes more legal immigration.”

Johnson doesn’t believe there are enough Americans to work on farms and in areas of unskilled labor because of the country’s push for its youth to pursue four-year college degrees.

“There’s not one manufacturing plant I’ve visited, in the seven years I’ve been doing this, that could hire enough people,” Johnson said.

Johnson claimed that the country’s welfare system pays American citizens not to work. He noted that one in five adult men in the United States are permanently out of the workforce, with more than half of them getting government assistance to deal with pain.

Combating opioids

Another bill Johnson is sponsoring is connected to America’s opioid crisis. The bill specifically addresses fentanyl analogues, which Johnson said are contributing to the alarming increase in fatal opioid overdoses.

Fentanyl is a Schedule II substance currently used to treat cancer patients. However, one small change to the chemical structure of fentanyl creates a completely new compound, an analogue, which is legal and sold worldwide.

Johnson’s bill, the Stopping Overdoses of Fentanyl Analogues Act, would put fentanyl analogues on the Schedule I list of controlled substances and allow the Drug Enforcement Agency to schedule other dangerous fentanyl analogues as they are identified.

The name of the act is the same as the organization started by Lauri Badura, of Oconomowoc, who lost her son, Archie, in 2014 to a fentanyl analogue overdose.

“Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin; it’s 100 times more potent than meth,” Johnson said. “Fentanyl is synthetic, and the ingredients can be sent in from China or India. Our drug enforcement can’t keep up with the slight change in the chemistry for an analogue, and suddenly it’s legal.”

He added that $800 worth of ingredients to make fentanyl can create analogues worth more than $800,000.