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Guest Workers: Hard to Turn Off Flow

By Jagdish Bhagwati Created: March 7, 2013 Last Updated: March 7, 2013
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Migrant workers harvest watermelon from a farm field, near Vincennes, in Indiana on July 18, 2012. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Migrant workers harvest watermelon from a farm field, near Vincennes, in Indiana on July 18, 2012. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Immigration reform as proposed in the United States consists of enacting policies that provide inducements and punishments to dent significantly, even eliminate, fresh inflows of undocumented, or illegal, immigrants, who are overwhelmingly unskilled, and thus reduce their existing stock of 11 million.

There are serious reasons to doubt that amnesty will work better than in 1986, under the Immigration and Reform and Control Act, when only half of the 6 million undocumented workers took advantage of that program.

Proposals emerging separately from a bipartisan group of eight senators and President Barack Obama, as relayed in his State of the Union address as well as calculated leaks, suggest that a guest worker program will be included as a way of eliminating the fresh inflows of illegal immigrants. But that too will not succeed.

Proponents contend that the guest worker program will have two favorable consequences for illegal immigration: First, the guests would be “temporary,” the idea being that one could turn the program off and even return the workers to Mexico and other homelands. Yet expectations among the workers and likely even their employers, co-workers, and communities are that attachments will form and the temporary workers will tend to become permanent.

Second, regardless, the political leaders assume that the guest workers will reduce, perhaps even eliminate, the illegal inflows. Both scenarios are implausible and almost certain to fail.

The notion that a country as large as the United States, with its history of embracing immigration—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as suggested by the Emma Lazarus poem near the Statue of Liberty—can keep immigrants in a temporary status and then round them up, returning them to their home countries when their terms are up, flies in the face of all experience with guest worker programs.

One Way Flow

In the German “gastarbeiter” program, the contracts were fairly specific that the workers had to leave when asked. But when it came to the crunch during a deep recession, even the fierce German authorities who go by the book resisted sending the guest workers home. As Swiss novelist Max Frisch put it, “Wir suchen arbeiter; es kamm mensch,” or “We sought workers and got men instead.”

The United States, with its historical leadership on human rights of immigrants, is even more likely to be humane. Besides, politics also would reinforce this outcome. It’s improbable that temporary Mexican or other guest workers from Latin America in particular could be expelled without a huge uproar in the increasingly vocal and politically influential Hispanic community, and without agitating the growing number of NGOs that oppose deportations.

“Monkey see, monkey do” behavior is common in American politics—what one ethnic community gets, others want and pursue also. The success of the Hispanic community in preventing deportations or enforcement of contractual termination of temporary guest workers will likely generate pressure and political activism from other communities.

Some, including Princeton sociologist Alejandro Portes, have suggested that “self-exit” by temporary immigrants could be induced by putting some moneys, possibly related to their Social Security contributions via payroll taxes—about $1,000 per year for a minimum-wage worker in California—into a fund, which would be released to the workers only on return to their country of origin. This would be regarded as a de facto incentives-linked deportation policy.

Regardless of whether temporary workers have access to permanent status, the assumption that increasing the number of legal immigrants would reduce the number of illegal immigrants seeking entry, hence solving the problem of illegal entries, is problematic.

First, immigration scholars understand that more legal entrants can paradoxically lead to more illegal entries. Legal immigrants ensure that communities, jobs, and shelter are available to illegal immigrants on arrival: This reduces the risks for those attempting illegal immigration.

Second, despite their dwindling numbers, labor unions, which do produce turnout for the Democratic Party, won’t approve of substantial legal entries through a guest worker program. Recently, the Chamber of Commerce and the labor union federation AFL-CIO have pursued the notion that the numbers entering as guest workers be determined by a committee on which the unions have a seat. Can anyone be so naive as to doubt that the effect would be to provide the unions with a veto over entry numbers and keep them low?

Illegal Numbers

If the legal inflow levels cannot be increased significantly, how could they possibly help reduce illegal inflows? The problem is that the United States is such a magnet for potential immigrants from around the globe, that there will always be a significant inflow of undocumented workers unless the immigration restrictions are dismantled. Observers should not be misled by the current lull on the border at Rio Grande.

The low entry rates of undocumented workers reflect the recession more than an enhanced enforcement policy. In any event, the illegal inflow consists now of an estimated 45 percent who arrive legally and stay on illegally.

The irrefutable fact is that, as long as the United States has immigration restrictions and remains a preferred destination, there is no way that illegal inflows can be reduced by nibbling at insignificant increases in legal entries via guest worker programs. Just recall the movie “The Untouchables”: No matter whether Al Capone and how many other gangsters were removed, trucks with loads of alcoholic beverages kept crossing the border as long as Prohibition remained in place.

Rather than pretend that illegal inflows can be reduced greatly, let alone eliminated, through insignificant guest worker programs that bring in more unskilled immigrants, the reformers should improve the design of the guest worker programs. Tying guest workers to specific employers turns them into de facto slaves, unable to assert any rights or file legitimate complaints—dangerous for them as they can be threatened by termination and hence deportation.

“Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States,” a report released this month from the Southern Poverty Law Center, details the human rights violations that afflict American guest workers. Mobility is essential; it can be within very broad sectors, at minimum.

The programs should also be open to fair competition among citizens of foreign countries, as urged by former President John Kennedy in June 1963 when he labeled the quota system “intolerable.”

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, approved after his death and supported by large majorities in the House and Senate, abolished the quota system, replacing it with caps for each country, and emphasized preferences for relatives, needed skills, and refugees. The changes ushered in a new wave of immigrants from Asia.

For now, the politicians are focusing on Hispanics for their power at the ballot box, but neglecting other ethnic communities comes only by abandoning the American value of nondiscrimination.

Jagdish Bhagwati is university professor of economics, law and international affairs at Columbia University and senior fellow in international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is finishing, with Francisco Rivera-Batiz, a book on illegal immigration reform.

May Yang, research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, contributed to this article. With permission from YaleGlobal Online. Copyright © 2013, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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