Tag: guest worker

The Choice: Legal Immigrants or Illegal Immigrants

People react to public policies by changing their behavior.  Foreigners committed to immigrating to the United States are confronted with two options – they can come legally or they can come illegally.  When visas are legally available, cheap, and plentiful they choose to come legally.  When visas are difficult to get, expensive, and few in number then many immigrants decide to come illegally.*  Employers face a similar dilemma when choosing to hire workers.

The inflow of illegal immigrants has slowed dramatically in recent years.  The poor American economy, economic growth south of the border, Mexican demographics, and heightened border security all partially explain that decline.  Another explanation is that the number of guest worker visa has increased, convincing some would-be illegal immigrants to instead enter and work legally.    

The annual number of guest worker visas issued on the E, H, L, O, P, and TN visas increased by 157 percent from 1997 to 2015.  The annual number of green cards for new arrivals also increased by 25 percent during the same time period and, although the majority are for lower-skilled family members, they also work in many of the occupations that would otherwise be filled by illegal immigrants.  The gross number of illegal immigrants making it into the United States each year also shrank during that time.

The number of guest workers, gross illegal immigrant entries, and green cards issued to new arrivals is surprisingly flat from 1997 to 2015, ranging from a high of 1.66 million in 1999 to a low of 1.17 million in 2009 (Figure 1).  The average during the entire period is 1.41 million entries a year.  The number of entries is remarkably constant even when considering the Great Recession and slow recovery, indicating that the number of entries doesn’t change nearly as much as the method of entry.  New green cards and guest worker visas are being used by many immigrants who would otherwise have entered illegally. 

Figure 1

Guest Worker Visas Issued, Green Cards for New Arrivals, and Gross Illegal Immigrant Inflows

 

Sources: State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Pew.

Guest Worker Visas Can Halt Illegal Immigration

There is a trade off between the number of lower skilled guest worker visas and the number of unauthorized immigrants.  More lower skilled guest workers means fewer unauthorized immigrants.  Fewer guest workers mean more unauthorized immigrants.  We just have to look back to the Bracero program to see this relationship.   

The number of removals and returns is an approximation of the stock of the unauthorized immigrant population and flows.  Many, but not all, of those removed or returned during this time period were funneled into guest worker visas.  Beginning with the adoption of the Bracero program and the H2 visa in the early 1950s, there was a flurry of removals and returns whereby many migrants were funneled into the guest worker visa programs.  After that, my thesis is that the large numbers of work visas decreased the number of apprehensions by shrinking the pool of unauthorized immigrants and channeling future ones into the legal system.  After Bracero was ended in the mid-1960s, the number of removals and returns began a steady increase along with an increase in the stock and flow of unauthorized immigrants deprived of their previous lawful means of entry and work.

Ending the lower skilled guest worker visa programs preceded the modern increase in unauthorized immigration. 

Source: Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Naturalization Service annual reports.

The more low skilled guest workers there are, the fewer unauthorized immigrants there are to deport. 

One legal worker on a visa seems to be worth more than one unauthorized immigrant worker – meaning a pretty favorable trade off in numbers for those concerned about the numbers of immigrants.  In 1954, 1 guest worker visa replaced 3.4 unauthorized immigrants, meaning that one legal worker seemed to be equal to more than three illegal workers.  If an important goal of a lower skilled guest worker visa is to eliminate the American economic demand for unauthorized immigrants, relatively few guest worker visas can replace a much larger unauthorized immigrant population.

Increases in Border Patrol and border enforcement are also unnecessary to get this result.  By allowing unauthorized immigrants to get the work visas, by not punishing them or employers for coming forward, and by making work visas available to those who want to enter, almost all future and current unauthorized immigrants can be funneled into the legal market without a large increase in enforcement.  This was the policy followed in the 1950s and it appears to have worked:   

Sources: Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Naturalization Service annual reports.

This chart zooms in on the 1942 through 1965 time period when the Bracero guest worker visa was in effect:

Sources: Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Naturalization Service annual reports.

This is not to say that Bracero was a perfect program and that it should be replicated today.  There were a lot of problems with it, namely that migrants were constrained in changing employers, migrants were limited to working only in agriculture, and the work visa was annual – all issues that should be fixed in any new lower skilled guest worker visa adopted.  A lower skilled guest worker visa is indispensable to vastly reduce or even halt unauthorized immigration.