Guest Workers Can Help End Illegal Immigration

by David Bier on November 27, 2012 · 6 comments

in Features, Immigration, International

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The debate over immigration reform has focused on its long-term effects on America’s culture as well as its economy. But that obscures the fact that for many foreigners seeking to come to the United States, their goal is not to become Americans, but to alleviate economic problems in their home country. These workers have little interest in assimilating or voting. They simply want to work for a while, sometimes for just a few months, and return home.

Last August, the Republican Party adopted a plank in its national platform arguing for “a new guest worker program.” Critics have derided this permission to relocate temporarily without a guarantee of citizenship as either mere crumbs for the workers or corporate welfare for their employers. In fact, a workable guest worker program would expand the market’s ability to accommodate the natural flow of labor, which has been distorted by government policy for too long.

Temporary migration is a market phenomenon, not a government program. During a period when travel was vastly more expensive than it is today, surveys at the turn of the 20th century found that most Italian immigrants to the United States planned to return to Italy after accumulating capital working in America. While many never fulfilled these plans, 40 percent of the 2.1 million Italians who came to America during that time eventually returned home. More recently, from 1986 to 1990, most undocumented Mexican workers stayed for less than 2 years and more than 86 percent returned home within five years.

The Republican Party is right to extend its commitment to free trade to the realm of labor. Its platform document argues for guest workers based on “the utility of a legal and reliable source of foreign labor.” But that’s not the only benefit. An effective guest worker program would also reduce illegal immigration. Prior to 1965, Mexicans faced no quantitative legal limits on entry to the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican laborers came as temporary “Bracero” workers during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. During this period, the Mexican undocumented population was extremely low thanks to the existence of a legal and fairly accessible avenue for legal entry that also met American employers’ needs.

After Congress ended the Bracero program in 1964, illegal entries rose rapidly. The government drove immigrants underground, creating a black market in labor, but as noted earlier, most migrant workers continued to leave. What led to the rapid increase in the undocumented population in the U.S. was increased border security during the 1990s. There was no increase in illegal entries during the 1990s. Rather, there was a huge decrease in departures. By 1998, most immigrants were staying longer than 6.5 years, and only 40 percent returned at all within five years. Workers who would have returned stayed for fear of having to make the dangerous and expensive border crossing twice. In fact, illegal entries actually decreased during the 1990s even while the undocumented population in the U.S. rapidly increased.

Opponents of guest worker programs argue that they often lead to permanent settlement. During the Bracero migration, for example, Mexican naturalizations increased 2,000 to 61,000. Yet this is a very small number compared to the 450,000 or more legal workers that entered each year and, in any case, should be seen as a good thing. Doesn’t it make more sense to assimilate those immigrants who have already spent time in the U.S. and already contributed to American business than those who haven’t?

Opponents also argue that temporary immigration results in more illegal immigration since at least half of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. originally entered under legal visas that have since expired. But this argument simply leads to the conclusion that temporary work visas should be renewable based on the condition that the immigrant has not needed public assistance and has worked throughout his or her stay.

Critics also claim that guest workers are exploited by businesses, but to the extent that the abuses are real, they are primarily a consequence of the workers not being free to change employers. This would require a simple regulatory change to allow workers to notify the government of a change of employer. Granting this liberty to the workers would also lessen the regulatory burden on employers who use temporary migrants.

Temporary work visas alone will not solve illegal immigration, nor do they provide the only type of immigration that America’s economy needs. But by providing American employers a legal avenue to hire the low skill workers they need, guest worker programs should be considered as part of any “comprehensive” approach to immigration reform.

JM Fay November 27, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Are you forgetting the 23 million out of work or needing more hours??? We certainly do not need more people competing for the same scarse jobs.

We already allow in 2 million per year; half through non ag work visas and half through chain migration (most of who will work). Add in babies born of illegals 300000 to 700000 per year and thats 2.3 to 2.7 million new immigrations per year when we arent creating enough jobs for the 23 million.

Before we allow in any more new immigrants we would like to see the numbers currently here on non ag work visas, other visas (church and education which allow unlimited numbers), green card holders, etc. Thats probably a number no one wants anyone to know as its that steep.

David Bier November 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm

You’re engaged in an economic fallacy. There are not a finite number of jobs. And unemployment is caused by government policy, not free markets.

jerry hale November 27, 2012 at 10:32 pm

There are currently eleven guest worker visa programs, described here:

How many more guest worker visa programs would you suggest we create?

David Bier November 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm

One, that actually allows people to enter freely.

Boca Condo King November 28, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Your article does point the way to a saner policy, but like with all things balance is needed.

The balance is enforcement, along with legal avenues for businesses to follow.

Right now Agricultural work visas are available on an almost unlimited basis, but they are not widely used. Why?, you may ask… Cost.

To bring a guest worker now, the employer is required to 1, have that person vetted by the US embassy in the workers’ home country, 2, and fly the worker in and out of the country, 3. Provide the worker with proper housing (no more than two people per bedroom) 4. Provide insurance coverage in case the worker becomes sick or injured. 5, Then they must pay employer portions of Social Security, Unemployment insurance etc. All of these things are costs the employer must bear, and those costs drive up the price of imported legal labor to a level where they are unable to compete with the illegal labor on the ground now. You can pay the illegal minimum wage in cash and save 50 to 75% vs. a legal guest worker paid the same minimum wage.

This is why most guest workers who come to the USA are being brought in by Country Clubs and other entities who primary concern is legal compliance as opposed to cost. For a country club, following the law is just as important and getting a low cost waiter or cook for the dining room.

When crime pays, (and with our current system it pays to hire and employ illegals) people will commit crimes.

Ask me how ten years ago the government almost solved the illegal immigration issue, but instead we ended up with Jerry Brown as CA Gov.

David Bier November 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm

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