Why guest workers? Because they wouldn’t have to be Mexican.

Why guest workers? One possible reason in business’ eyes: they’d be cheap because they wouldn’t be Mexican.

Mark’s post asking why guest workers would be good for the country may have an easy answer: easy politically, that is. As some expert or advocate pointed out on NPR last night (I know that’s vague: it’s too late to look it up, and I’m not claiming to have thought of it myself; email me and I’ll give proper credit *see update below), much of the debate has assumed that guest workers would be Mexican—but in an age of cheap plane fares, why should they be? Mexican wages are pretty high by developing-country standards, especially at purchasing-power-parities, and under a guest worker program labor recruiters would have every incentive to look in Asia or the Middle East (or, the expert might have added, Africa) instead. So guest workers would provide the “benefit” of being dirt cheap: Mexicans take jobs now not because nobody can beat their wages, but because they can get across the border.

The attractions to business-backed Republicans of paying African rather than Mexican wages become clear. That lowest-wage recruitment would make the social gap between guest workers and citizens even more yawning than Mark suggests is also clear. My aspirations tend towards giving all residents uniform rights and increasing opportunities, not looking forward to lording it over a new class of desperate laborers who fear starvation if fired—even if their presence would let me pay a nickel less for each lettuce. Mark is right: sink the bill, and rejoice if it’s sunk already.

By the way, Mark doesn’t mention the biggest reason why journalists root for bills to pass: civics classes. How many junior high school teachers teach units on “how a bill doesn’t become a law”?

UPDATE [April 8, 11:15 a.m.): OK, I’ve checked. The “expert or advocate” was Mark Kirkorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. That organization professes “a pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.” In practice, that seems to mean a lot of worries about the national security risks of porous borders rather than the cultural risks of having Mexicans in the country. This would explain why Kirkorian talked up guest workers from the Middle East and Asia instead of Africa and started discussing guest workers as security risks about when I turned off the day before yesterday. It’s hard to paint Ghanians as likely terrorists; I’m more afraid of crazy white guys myself.

I have no particular interest in this viewpoint. So: go ahead and distrust the messenger if you want, but the factual point that guest workers might not be Mexicans still seems right,and interesting for reasons different from Kirkorian’s.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

4 thoughts on “Why guest workers? Because they wouldn’t have to be Mexican.”

  1. One doesn't need to imagine guestworkers from countries other than Mexico, it is already happening with all the abuses and labor market effects you might imagine. A labor contractor has imported Thai workers under the H-2A agricultural guestworker program and, surprise, exploited them unmercifully, despite laws on the books intended to prevent the abuses. The sad truth is that this government will never vigorously enforce the law against US employers to the benefit of foreign workers and the workers are powerless to stand up for themselves. A new guestworker program will certainly work for employer, displace US workers and depress labor market conditions in those industries with a significant presence of guestworkers, and exploit the foreign workers.

  2. Every guest worker bill under consideration requires minimum wage and parity between wages for legal permanent residents and guest workers (as well as equivalent health benefits). Employers will certainly find ways around this, but the difficulty of doing that would seem to reduce the probability of reqruitment of non-Mexicans (who are still cheaper to transport).

  3. Ummm…if the immigrants were here legally under an official government program, would they not be subject to minimum wage laws? I don't think that bottom-feeding is an issue here for those who would be here in a legal situation.

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