We May Have Found The Answer To Immigration Reform In ‘Guest Workers’

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.

What’s the most controversial part of the current immigration reform debate?  It’s not the sweeping “amnesty” for illegal aliens that liberals advocate.  Nor is it the long-sought goal of a “sealed” Southern border favored by conservatives.

Until recently, the two sides seemed ready to compromise on these issues.  A bipartisan deal coupling an expansive DREAM Act legalization program with expanded funding for a strengthened US-Mexico border barrier—which President Trump still likes to call “The Wall” – was in reach.

But the two sides can’t agree on legal immigration.  Trump wants to reduce the ability of US citizens and immigrants to sponsor their family members for green cards.  He also wants to eliminate the so-called Diversity Visa lottery program.  Democrats have supported both measures in the past – as far back as 1996 — but they’re digging their heels in now.

But that’s nothing compared to liberal opposition to a bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) that would establish a contract labor system to allow unskilled workers, primarily from Mexico, to enter the United States to work in agriculture and other farm-related industries for a period of three years.

Liberals hate so-called “guest worker” programs.  They say the programs reduce would-be immigrants to “second class” status.  But many foreign born workers desperate to obtain a foothold in the US labor market don’t necessarily need permanent residency. A legal work permit with a guaranteed wage is better than living with the constant fear of being deported — even if it doesn’t necessarily lead to a green card.

Conservatives don’t like guest worker programs, either.  While temporary workers are supposed to leave the country when their contracts expire, many don’t, they say.  The argument is overblown. Guest workers have monetary incentives to depart, but there’s evidence from the infamous “Bracero” program – which brought some five million Mexicans to the United State to work on temporary contracts from the 1940s to the 1960s – that tough enforcement would be needed to ensure that it happens.

There’s good reason the guest worker issue keeps coming up.  While America prides itself on being a high-technology leader, our economy still requires a large number of jobs in the low-skilled service sector.

According to the US Labor department, the number of unskilled native-born workers available to perform these jobs is shrinking.  Wages are simply too low, and the work too harsh and demanding.  But raising wages would make it difficult for many low-skill industries to remain globally competitive.  So we’re stuck with cheap foreign labor.

In fact, the United States already has several smaller guest worker visa programs in place – we just don’t call them that.  Thousands of temporary workers enter the country each year under visa programs like H-1B, H2-A, H-2B, and L-1. The programs don’t operate year-round, much less for three years, but they operate in the same fashion.

H-2A, for example, covers seasonal employment in agriculture, ostensibly to fill labor shortages during peak harvest season.  H-2B does the same for non-agricultural workers in everything from tourism to shrimping.  There’s even a Summer Work Travel program for students from abroad that functions much like a guest worker program — though no one admits it officially.

Workers in the three programs are permitted to work for 10 months.  In fact, many come back year after year.

Some businesses rely heavily on these programs.  And for years, they’ve complained about the regulatory obstacles that limit their ability to exploit them to the fullest, leaving many of their crops rotting on the vine.

The Goodlatte bill would remove nearly all of these regulatory obstacles.  Businesses would no longer have to pay guest workers more than the “prevailing wage” or provide for their housing and transportation.  And domestic labor recruitment requirements would be eased.

Under the new visa program, known as H-2C, workers could stay in the US to work continuously for thirty-six months.  And responsibility for the program would shift from the Department of Labor to the more business-friendly Department of Agriculture.

What does President Trump think?  He’s been insisting on a national strategy of “hire American” and “buy American.”  “Hire American” fits neatly with the harsh criticisms of guest worker programs voiced by conservatives and liberals alike.

But Trump himself has relied heavily on the H-2A program to fill labor niches on his hotel construction sites.  And since taking office, he’s actually lifted the cap on the number of H-2A visas available.

Goodlatte’s bill, which barely made it out of a House subcommittee due to combined opposition for some Democrats and Republicans, remains stalled.  It may never make it to the House floor for consideration, which wouldn’t be the first time.  

But denying the problem won’t solve it.  

There are ways to amend the Goodlatte bill that could possibly ease liberal opposition. Contract laborers might be freed to work for more than one employer, making them less likely to become captive – and super-exploited – by a single employer.  Temporary workers could also one day qualify for residency and eventually citizenship – though not right away.  

In fact, the guest worker issue, which many still treat as an unwelcome intrusion into the immigration debate, may be just what the country needs to resolve the current deadlock.  It’s one way to allow more foreign-born nationals into the United States and to ensure that they actually contribute to the economy.  

Implemented properly, with the assistance of foreign government consuls, for example, the program could also stem illegal flows without damaging the native-born work force.   

Even better, if coupled with provisions for possible permanent residency down the road, a guest worker program could help offset – for the time being – Trump’s proposed reductions in legal immigration that liberals find so objectionable.

Stewart Lawrence is a consultant and policy analyst.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.