The debate over immigration reform has focused on its long-term effects on America’s culture as well as its economy. But that obscures the fact that for many foreigners seeking to come to the United States, their goal is not to become Americans, but to alleviate economic problems in their home country. These workers have little interest in assimilating or voting. They simply want to work for a while, sometimes for just a few months, and return home.
Last August, the Republican Party adopted a plank in its national platform arguing for “a new guest worker program.” Critics have derided this permission to relocate temporarily without a guarantee of citizenship as either mere crumbs for the workers or corporate welfare for their employers. In fact, a workable guest worker program would expand the market’s ability to accommodate the natural flow of labor, which has been distorted by government policy for too long.
Temporary migration is a market phenomenon, not a government program. During a period when travel was vastly more expensive than it is today, surveys at the turn of the 20th century found that most Italian immigrants to the United States planned to return to Italy after accumulating capital working in America. While many never fulfilled these plans, 40 percent of the 2.1 million Italians who came to America during that time eventually returned home. More recently, from 1986 to 1990, most undocumented Mexican workers stayed for less than 2 years and more than 86 percent returned home within five years.
The Republican Party is right to extend its commitment to free trade to the realm of labor. Its platform document argues for guest workers based on “the utility of a legal and reliable source of foreign labor.” But that’s not the only benefit. An effective guest worker program would also reduce illegal immigration. Prior to 1965, Mexicans faced no quantitative legal limits on entry to the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican laborers came as temporary “Bracero” workers during the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. During this period, the Mexican undocumented population was extremely low thanks to the existence of a legal and fairly accessible avenue for legal entry that also met American employers’ needs.
After Congress ended the Bracero program in 1964, illegal entries rose rapidly. The government drove immigrants underground, creating a black market in labor, but as noted earlier, most migrant workers continued to leave. What led to the rapid increase in the undocumented population in the U.S. was increased border security during the 1990s. There was no increase in illegal entries during the 1990s. Rather, there was a huge decrease in departures. By 1998, most immigrants were staying longer than 6.5 years, and only 40 percent returned at all within five years. Workers who would have returned stayed for fear of having to make the dangerous and expensive border crossing twice. In fact, illegal entries actually decreased during the 1990s even while the undocumented population in the U.S. rapidly increased.
Opponents of guest worker programs argue that they often lead to permanent settlement. During the Bracero migration, for example, Mexican naturalizations increased 2,000 to 61,000. Yet this is a very small number compared to the 450,000 or more legal workers that entered each year and, in any case, should be seen as a good thing. Doesn’t it make more sense to assimilate those immigrants who have already spent time in the U.S. and already contributed to American business than those who haven’t?
Opponents also argue that temporary immigration results in more illegal immigration since at least half of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. originally entered under legal visas that have since expired. But this argument simply leads to the conclusion that temporary work visas should be renewable based on the condition that the immigrant has not needed public assistance and has worked throughout his or her stay.
Critics also claim that guest workers are exploited by businesses, but to the extent that the abuses are real, they are primarily a consequence of the workers not being free to change employers. This would require a simple regulatory change to allow workers to notify the government of a change of employer. Granting this liberty to the workers would also lessen the regulatory burden on employers who use temporary migrants.
Temporary work visas alone will not solve illegal immigration, nor do they provide the only type of immigration that America’s economy needs. But by providing American employers a legal avenue to hire the low skill workers they need, guest worker programs should be considered as part of any “comprehensive” approach to immigration reform.