Guestworkers: Hard To Turn Off Flow

Hispanics, about 17 percent of the US population, represented just 10 percent of voters in the nation’s 2012 presidential election, but soundly rejected harsh proposals on immigration, including rigid enforcement and no amnesty for those already in the country illegally. Since the election, both Republicans and Democrats recognize the need for prompt immigration reform, reducing illegal entry and offering a humane response to immigrants living and contributing to communities for years despite their illegal status. Expanding US guestworker programs could be one strategy considered by a bipartisan group of eight senators and even the president. Jagdish Bhagwati, professor of economics, law and international affairs at Columbia University, contends that expectations of temporary workers who come and go based on employer needs, while reducing or even eliminating illegal entries, are unrealistic. Increases in legal entry can lead to more illegal entry, and American labor groups are wary about a substantial rise in guestworkers. Bhagwati urges mobility for workers and policies that avoid discrimination and protect human rights. – YaleGlobal

Guestworkers: Hard To Turn Off Flow

Demographics force US to confront immigration reform, but guestworkers pose challenges
Jagdish Bhagwati
Monday, February 25, 2013

Unwelcome guests? The US imposes strict limits on guestworkers - Mexican guestworkers line up at the US consulate (top), willing to take on jobs in agriculture and other industries, like packing lettuce in Arizona, which most Americans don't want to do

NEW YORK: 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 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 guestworker 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 guestworker 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 guestworkers 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 huddle 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 guestworker programs. 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 guestworkers 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 guestworkers 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 guestworkers 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 risk of 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 guestworker program.  Recently, the Chamber of Commerce and the labor union federation AFL-CIO have pursued the notion that the numbers entering as guestworkers be determined by a committee on which the unions have a seat. Can anyone be so naïve as to doubt that the effect would be to provide the unions with a veto over entry numbers and keep them low?

If the legal inflow levels cannot be increased significantly, how could they possibly help reduce illegal inflows? The problem is that the US 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 US 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 guestworker 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 guestworker programs that bring in more unskilled immigrants, the reformers should improve the design of the guestworker programs. Tying guestworkers 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 guestworkers. 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 non-discrimination. 


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.

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