Immigration Reform: The Portable Guest Worker Visa Solution

This article appeared on The Hill (Online) on January 28, 2013.
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The AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, two big players in the immigration reform debate, are breaking bread to figure out an approach to guest worker visas. Immigration reform is tricky. To be politically acceptable it must balance increased immigration enforcement, legalization of current unauthorized immigrants, and a guest worker program to channel future immigrants into the legal market. The present plan is to create a commission with representation from the government, business and unions. This effectively means handing over control to unions — and is therefore doomed to fail.

The 2007 immigration reform effort failed because the necessary balance between enforcement and entry was removed. Republican support for immigration reform essentially vanished when then‐​Sen. Dorgan’s (D-N.D.) added an amendment that would have ended the guest worker program after five years. Without a guest worker program, immigration reform could not channel future worker flows into the legal market, resulting in the continued employment of unauthorized immigrants instead of lawfully employed guest workers.

Senator Dorgan intended the amendment to kill the immigration reform bill. The then leaders of the AFL-CIO, Laborers’ International Union of North America, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers & Helpers, and the Brotherhood of Teamsters supported a legalization of current unauthorized immigrants. But all wrote letters opposing the guest worker program and supporting Dorgan’s efforts to kill it.

James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters wrote that he opposed a guest worker program because “forcing workers to toil in a truly temporary status with a high risk of exploitation and abuse by those seeking cheap labor.” President Newton B. Jones of the Boilermakers wrote passionately against an “enormous guest worker program that would allow employers to import hundreds of thousands of temporary workers very year to perform permanent jobs throughout the U.S. economy.”

But union opposition to guest workers puts them in a bind because it helped halt immigration reform. Since immigration reform is unlikely to get anywhere without a guest worker provision, unions had to come up with a solution that satisfied all parties.

Their present plan is to create a triumvirate commission with the power to set the number of guest worker visas every year. The commission would consist of three parties — business, a government representative, and the unions themselves — each with equal voting power. Most years businesses would vote for more migration because they demand workers and government would oppose it because of political pressure. That leaves unions as the tie‐​breaker vote effectively deciding the number of guest worker visas every year.

Besides handing unions effective control over guest worker policy, a triumvirate will not create a workable visa program.

Assuming that labor unions are in fact primarily concerned about protecting guest workers from abuse, as their letters to Senator Dorgan state, unions should support visa portability instead of a triumvirate. In a free labor market, abused employees can quit their jobs and move to better ones. This incentivizes every employer to refrain from exploitation. Guest workers should be allowed to do the same by quitting abusive employers and moving to new ones.

There is precedent for such a portable guest worker visa. During World War I the government had a guest worker arrangement with Mexicans that allowed them to work in agriculture, railroads, and other industries. During that program, guest workers could quit jobs and be hired by employers who were approved to hire guest workers. The guest workers did not need to seek the permission of the government to switch jobs, they simply had to tell the government about their new employer after they were hired.

A guest worker visa needs to have fewer regulations and government controls, not be saddled with a triumvirate. The current H-2A visa for agricultural workers is numerically unlimited but the regulations and restrictions, administered by four different federal agencies, are so burdensome and expensive that it is practically unusable. George W. Bush’s Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao reported, “Many who have tried it [the H-2A visa], report such bad experiences that they stopped using it altogether.”

A viable guest worker visa program, at a minimum, needs to be created to avoid future unauthorized immigration. It is imperative that such a program avoid widespread worker abuse, but a triumvirate commission combined with intensive government controls and oversight will not accomplish that goal. A portable guest worker visa that allows easy worker mobility between employers is a small government solution to union concerns.