Why guestworkers?

It’s rare to find a policy proposal with no actual benefits. But a guestworker program comes close.

I can see the case for opening up legal immigration.

I can see the case for legalizing those currently in this country illegally.

I can see the case for slowing down illegal immigration by making it harder for illegals to get jobs.

If I squint just right, I can even see a case for building a barrier to make it harder to cross the US-Mexico border illegally.

But really and truly, I can’t see any legitimate case for admitting people to this country to work but insisting that they not stay. If the purpose of controlling immigration is to reduce the competition for foreign nationals for jobs here, why let in a bunch of “guest workers”? If we want foreign nationals to work here, why not let the foreign nationals who are here now have those jobs?

Of course I have my dark suspicions about motives, but I’d really like to hear someone name some actual advantage for the country guest-workers have over genuine immigrants.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

17 thoughts on “Why guestworkers?”

  1. I honestly don't know. It might work in theory, but what horrifies me about a guest worker program is the amount of bureaucracy that would be needed for enforcement.
    I was in the Senate gallery back in March when Dick Durbin was speaking about the DREAM act. He said that a large percentage of illegal immigrants were people who had arrived in the country legally but had overstayed their welcome. Quite frankly, based on that I don't really see what problems a guest worker program could end up solving.

  2. The guest worker idea has just one purpose; to drive down wages while the R's tell themselves that they're keeping "those people" out of the country.

  3. If guestworkers are on the European model, with a minimal chance of citizenship, I would agree–I don't see a reason. However, the proposals I've heard specifics on seem to be much like the current H1-B visa, or better; they give a temporary work permit, which after a period of time can be converted to a green card (which is on a clear track to citizenship). I can see the benefits of that system.

  4. In case my comment is overly cryptic–the benefits I see to a 'graduated immigration" proposal are that it makes it possible to assess someone's ability to support themselves, comply with the law, etc after he is in the country but before deportation is not a reasonable remedy.

  5. Mark, it provides for a pool of workers who will (undoubtedly) be restricted to one employer, and so less upity. An advantage, from a certain perspective.

  6. The advantage isn't to the country, the advantage is to employers who then hold ALL the power in a boss-worker relationship. It'll be open season on any alien who dares question any unfair treatment in the workplace. Also, guest worker programs have a habit of being both permanent and creating an underclass that don't enjoy the full benefits of the society they exist in (see the Turkish in Germany, the Filipinos in Saudi Arabia, et. al). I reckon the Bush admin. is being a bit short-sighted in not considering this. Unless they DO, and are counting on it…

  7. Unfortunately, I think the "advantage" is purely racist or nativist. In the imagination of a white small-town Republican, a Mexican legal immigrant is someone who moves into the house next door, enrolls a bunch of spanish-speaking kids in the schools, and makes you feel like a minority on your own street. A "guest worker", on the other hand, is presumed to live on a compound out in the orange groves, or something, and only shows up in white society to paint your house or mow your lawn. A guest worker makes no claims to personal respect, or participation in local culture.
    While big business is of course opposed to closing the borders, I suspect they're fairly indifferent to the details of their workers' exact path to citizenship or deportation—especially if that path is longer than the typical term of employment.

  8. The advantage is they can be imported from Africa so they're even cheaper than the ones who got here from Mexico.

  9. The guest worker permit makes the illegal alien a temporary resident, in theory. Thus, one can promise that they will eventually leave, without actually having to enforce it. Kind of like deficit spending: we'll deal with this at some point in the future.
    As far as actual conservative arguments, perhaps importing them for a few years will help to later export glorious American history and cultural, thereby spreading democracy and apple pie. Skimpy, I know, but it's the best I can do.

  10. You can't see a legitimate reason because there isn't one. Guest workers are employees you don't have to invest in with training, promotions and raises, that don't vote so they have no say in wage and benefit or workplace safety arguments, and that you can kick out and replace with another just like it when the time is up. Basically they are illegal immigratnts that the employer won't get in trouble for hiring.

  11. I was thinking about this too. The best I could come up with is, suppose there are a bunch of people who want to come to the US to make money for their families, but have no interest in becoming either citizens or permanent residents. If these folks are skilled workers, we give them H1C visas – which as far as I know, don't provide any "path to citizenship." So this is like an H1C visa for unskilled workers. Lets them come up here, be legitimate members of the workforce (and taxpayers), send money back home to their families, then go home until they are allowed to re-apply. The idea is that the pain-in-the-ass aspect of applying, leaving on schedule and re-applying is justified because the guest workers don't have to worry about random sweeps and deporation, and neither do their employers.
    If you leave aside the whole captive low-cost labor market aspect (heh…), it kinda makes sense. If you squint.

  12. Why "guestworker"?
    Because the term "indentured servant" has too many negative connotations.

  13. Does anyone know the proportion of immigrants over, say, the last 40 years who have come to this country, stayed for a few years, and then returned home permanently?
    I ask this because that was the pattern for half of all immigrants from Europe and Asia right up til the Second World War — come here for a few years to accumulate a nest egg at higher wages than those available at home, and then go home with that nest egg. It changed in large part because of the Second World War, when Europe was a wreck and Chinese immigrants would have had to go back to live under communism. (See Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore, and the works he cites therein, about immigrants returning home.)

  14. There are, indeed, people who want to come here to work, but who aren't interested in citizenship. A guest worker program would allow them to be here for the work, but return home to visit their families. I haven't got any idea how to craft a program that doesn't make guest workers into indentured servants, but I think we definitely need one. As things stand now, legal immigration is next to impossible, particulary for the poorest people, who are the ones most in need of the work. If you don't believe me, go check out the forms and fees at the INS site; then try to find anyone anywhere in this country who was able to immigrate without adding lawyers' fees to the costs listed. Factor in quotas which result in people waiting for up to 15 years for legal entry, and the fact that American citizenship is not actually the be-all and end-all for everyone everywhere, and you'll begin to get a grip on the problem.
    I don't know how to do it. I just hope someone somewhere does. (And, by the way, Bush's plan sucks.)

  15. Since the whole thing is the product of "pollitical" panic, you have to look at it politically. Mainly, the hope seems to be that it can be sold to the xenophobe base as a way to control all those brown people and make sure they won't take over, and that this time it'll work because of those biometric indelible foolproof ID cards.
    Of course, as someone mentioned above, most illegals started out legal but stayed too long. That includes an awful lot of Irish and Canadian guests who will never be asked to show ID unless they're being hired by a university. They'll stick around.
    But the indentured servitude aspect of it is also political. It's one of two provisions aimed at businesses, contractors, and ag employers; the other is the requirement that illegals on the citizenship trail will have to hold jobs, in addition to paying fines, etc.
    Early reports indicate that the voting base is unhappy and might need a lot more mollifying and/or explaining, but I think that the big employers and the small-to-medium contractors and ag employers will be smiling. Docile labor forces make them sleep so well at night.

  16. I support immigration and a path-to-citizenship, but I think there is one very good reason to have a guest worker program: there are Mexicans who want to work part time in the US but return regularly to their families in Mexico. It is humane to let them do so, and we shouldn't make citizenship a requirement for safely visiting your family abroad. Ditto for people on visas and applying for greencards — the rules controlling their ability to enter and leave are way too strict and create hardships for families.
    As evidence for this, look at the increase in Mexican immigrants staying longer in the US and bringing their families after the California border was fenced and enforcement toughened. Illegal immigrants are staying in the US longer now, instead of moving back and forth with the agricultural seasons, because the cost of crossing the border has risen. Yes, some of these immigrants might prefer to wait years for citizenship. But their previous behavior reveals a preference for returning to Mexico regularly.
    Yes, I agree that Bush wants guest workers as cheap labor and other ignoble reasons, and I don't expect his program to be any good. But that's not the point — the point is whether there is a good reason for guest workers. IMHO, that reason is that the US isn't East Berlin or Cuba, and we shouldn't have an underclass forbidden to leave the country without jeopardizing their ability to return.

  17. There are some Mexican workers who would benefit under a "guest worker" provision.
    For generations, Mexican men (and some women) from the same family, or village have worked for the same Texas or New Mexico employer. The employer generally trusted the employee to provide a substitute for what were usually younger workers laying in a nest egg before starting a family or business in Mexico.
    I've also known Mexican middle class people who've come to the U.S. only planning to work for a year or two as a way of financing their higher education, raise the funds to open a business or the like back home. In Houston, I once had an accountant mowing my lawn. In Mexico City, I knew an executive for the Mexican subsidiary of a large U.S. corporation who'd fished off the Alaska coast for a season or two before going to graduate school.
    Canada has a working "guest worker" program, but then, it's a lot harder to walk to Canada… but, with adequate salary protection (and enforced benefits) it's possible. The U.S. janitorial service, ServiceMaster, also does a good job recruiting Mexican workers under contract, and are generally well-regarded as a short-term foreign employer.

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