A guest worker program is the only way for US immigration reform to succeed

Immigration reform’s fate may hang on the incentives facing farmers like Francisco Chavez and the workers he employs.
Immigration reform’s fate may hang on the incentives facing farmers like Francisco Chavez and the workers he employs.
Image: AP Photo/Jacob Lopez
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It might seem surprising, but giving millions of illegal immigrants a chance at American citizenship is apparently less controversial than giving temporary work visas to a few hundred thousand. This week President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of US senators both proposed immigration reform plans that involve a path to citizenship for people already in America without papers. The senators, however, also endorsed a new program for agricultural guest workers; the president did not.

That’s because guest worker programs are controversial. Many Americans wrongly worry that they drive down wages for everyone else. Some worry about the rights of the guest workers themselves;  the bracero program that brought Mexican workers to the US from the 1940s to 1960s still has a mixed history. But they’re not controversial among many economists, who say they provide better help to poor countries and their citizens than direct aid, and boost US economic growth. Nor are they controversial on American farms, where three out of every four workers are immigrants.

Still, the last time the US tried this immigration two-step—recognizing everyone already in the country, and then closing the door behind them—in 1986, it didn’t work that well. Many undocumented immigrants didn’t sign up for naturalization, and the door wasn’t really closed. Employers still needed immigrant labor, and were able to get it. The number of undocumented immigrants increased from 3 million in 1986 to 11 million today, about two million of whom are in there to work on farms.

Indeed, the senators recognize in their framework that “to prevent future waves of illegal immigration a humane and effective system needs to be created for these immigrant workers to enter the country and find employment without seeking the aid of human traffickers or drug cartels.”

A guest-worker program would be “absolutely far and away the biggest determinant of the unauthorized immigrant population a few years from now,” Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, says. By contrast, he says, whether or not there’s a path to citizenship for those already in America “is absolutely least important” in determining how many undocumented migrants the country will have.

The senators have proposed a plan that improves on the current H2A agricultural guest worker visa, which is so poorly designed that even though there is no cap on the number that can be issued, it is only used by about 5% of seasonal agricultural workers—many others are hired from the black market, driving up the demand for undocumented immigrants.

The H2A was supposedly created to allow guest workers but “was designed to stand in the way of farmers,” by populist politicians, Clemens says. The bureaucracy is intense and expensive, and farmers must pay foreign laborers above the US minimum wage. Moreover, workers who participate face serious abuses, often because the program permanently links them to a single employer, giving them little power to demand their rights.

Under the new framework, guest workers could come to the US on a regular basis to work and be fully documented. More importantly, repeat guest workers could eventually apply for citizenship.

Success will depend on whether or not the system both protects workers and reduces the obstacles to hiring them that make farmers turn to the black market. It will also depend on a complementary system to monitor visa overstays and employment verification, and probably on close cooperation with the Mexican government, whose citizens account for the bulk of US migrant labor.

Other countries are doing this successfully. Canada has a seasonal guest-worker program that brings 20,000 workers to the country each year, and Australia has one, begun four years ago, that will bring 1,600 workers to the country this year. New Zealand’s guest-worker partnership with Pacific Island countries like Tonga is highly regarded. All have low illegal overstay rates, suggesting that such programs can be run better than they have in the past—though America’s would, of course, have to be much bigger.

The risk is that without a way to answer demand for seasonal agricultural workers, this round of comprehensive immigration reform will fail, just as it did in 1986—though the risk is slightly smaller today, since these agricultural laborers are now a smaller share of the total undocumented population.

On the other hand, Clemens points out, it’s not just about farmhands. Guest workers could work in construction or child care, too, and deserve the opportunity to do so legally. But given today’s political environment, a more humane and effective program for farmworkers alone would be a major upgrade.