TED Talk: Creating Order at the Border

How Guest Worker Visas Could Transform the U.S. Immigration System

January 9, 2020 • Speeches
TEDSalon: Border Stories Sign

TED Talk: Creating Order at the Border

How Guest Worker Visas Could Transform the U.S. Immigration System

January 9, 2020 • Speeches

Mr. Bier delivered this TED talk at the TEDSalon “Border Stories” in New York City on September 10, 2019.

By October 2018, Juan Carlos Rivera could no longer afford to live in his home in Copan, Honduras. As the Dallas Morning News reported, a gang was taking 10 percent of his earnings from his barber shop.1 His wife was assaulted going to her pre‐​K teaching job, and they were concerned about the safety of their young daughter.

What could they do? Run away? Seek asylum in another country? They didn’t want to do that. They just wanted to live in their country safely. But their options were limited. So that month, Juan Carlos moved his family to a safer location, while he joined a group of migrants on the long and perilous journey from Central America to a job a family member said was open for him in the United States.

By now, we are all familiar with what awaited them at the U.S.-Mexico border: the harsher and harsher penalties doled out to those crossing there—the criminal prosecutions for crossing illegally, the inhumane detention, and most terribly, the separation of families.

I’m here to tell you that not only is this treatment wrong—it’s unnecessary. This belief that the only way to maintain order is with inhumane means is inaccurate. In fact, the opposite is true. Only a humane system will create order at the border. When safe, orderly, legal travel to the United States is available, very few people choose travel that is unsafe, disorderly or illegal.

The Mexican Success

Now, I appreciate the idea that legal immigration could just resolve the border crisis might sound a bit fanciful. But here is the good news: we have done this before.

I have worked on immigration for years at the Cato Institute and other think tanks in Washington D.C. and as the senior policy adviser for a Republican member of Congress, negotiating bipartisan immigration reform. I have seen firsthand how America has implemented a system of humane order at the border for Mexico. It’s called a guest worker program.

Here’s the even better news: we can replicate this success for Central America. Of course, some people will still need to seek asylum at the border. But to understand how successful this could be for immigrants like Juan Carlos, understand that until recently, nearly every immigrant arrested by Border Patrol was Mexican.

In 1986, each Border Patrol agent arrested 510 Mexicans—well over one per day.2 By 2019, this number was just eight. That’s one every 43 days. It is a 98 percent reduction. So where have all the Mexicans gone? The most significant change is that the United States began issuing hundreds of thousands of guest worker visas to Mexicans, so that they can come legally (Figure 1).

José Vásquez Cabrera was among the first Mexican guest workers to take advantage of this visa expansion. He told the New York Times that before his visa he’d made terrifying illegal border crossings, braving near deadly heat and the treachery of the landscape.3 One time, a snake killed a member of his group.

Thousands of other Mexicans also didn’t make it, dying of dehydration in the deserts or drowning in the Rio Grande.4 Millions more were chased down and arrested.5 Guest worker visas have nearly ended this inhumane chaos. As Vásquez Cabrera put it, “I no longer have to risk my life to support my family. And when I’m here, I don’t have to live in hiding.”6

Guest worker visas actually reduced the number of illegal crossings more than the number of visas issued. Jose Bacilio, another Mexican guest worker, explained why to the Washington Post in April 2019.7He said, even though he hadn’t received a visa this year, he wouldn’t risk all of his future chances by crossing illegally. This likely helps explain why from 1996 to 2019 for every guest worker admitted legally from Mexico, there was a decline in two arrests of Mexicans crossing illegally.8

Now it’s true that Mexican guest workers do some really tough jobs: picking fruit, cleaning crabs, landscaping in a 100‐​degree heat.9 Some critics maintain that guest worker visas are not actually humane and that the workers are just abused slaves. But Vásquez Cabrera thought a guest worker visa was liberating, not enslavement, and like nearly all other guest workers, he chose the legal path over the illegal one, repeatedly.10

The expansion of guest worker visas to Mexicans has been among the most significant humane changes in U.S. immigration policy ever, and that humane change imposed order on chaos.

Central American Opportunity

So where does this leave Central Americans, like Juan Carlos? Well, Central Americans received just three percent of the guest worker visas issued in 2019, even as their share of border arrests has risen to 74 percent (Figure 2).11

The United States issued just one guest worker visa to a Central American for every 78 who crossed the border illegally in 2019.12 So if they can’t get their papers at home, many take their chances, coming up through Mexico to claim asylum at the border or cross illegally, even if, like Juan Carlos, they prefer to come to work.

The United States can do better. It needs to create new guest worker visas specifically for Central Americans. This would create an incentive for U.S. businesses to seek out and hire Central Americans, paying for their flights to the United States, and diverting them from the illegal, dangerous trek north. Central Americans could build flourishing lives at home, without the need to seek asylum at the border or cross illegally, freeing up an overwhelmed system.

Some people might say that letting the workers go back and forth will never work in Central America where violence is so high.

But again, it worked in Mexico, even as Mexico’s murder rate more than tripled over the last decade, to a level higher than much of Central America.13 And it would work for Juan Carlos who said, despite the threats, he only wants to live in the United States temporarily, to make enough money to sustain his family in their new home. He even suggested that a guest worker program would be one of the best things to help Hondurans like him.

Cintia, a 29‐​year‐​old single mother of three from Honduras, seems to agree. She told the Wall Street Journal that she came for a job to support her kids and her mom.14 Surveys of Central Americans traveling through Mexico, by the College of the Northern Border in Mexico, confirm that Juan and Cintia are the norm.15 Most—not all—but most do come for jobs, even if, like the Riveras, they may also face some real threats at home.

How much would a low‐​wage job in the United States help a Honduran, like Juan or Cintia? Hondurans like them make as much in one month in the United States as they do in an entire year working in Honduras.16 A few years’ work in the United States can propel a Central American into its upper middle class where safety is easier to come by.

What Central Americans lack is not the desire to work, not the desire to contribute to the U.S. economy, to contribute to the lives of Americans. What Central Americans lack is a legal alternative to asylum to be able to do so legally.

Of course, a new guest worker program will not resolve 100 percent of this complex phenomenon. Many asylum seekers will still need to seek safety at the U.S. border. But with the flows reduced, we can more easily work out ways to deal with them humanely. Ultimately, no single policy has proven to do more to create an immigration system that is both humane and orderly than to let the workers come legally.

About the Author

1 Alfredo Carchado, “The Immigrant Caravan Heads North, Looking For Jobs Despite Trump’s Words of Warning,” Dallas Morning News, November 10, 2018.

2 David Bier, “Homicides in Mexico Tripled But Fewer Mexicans Came Illegally,” Cato at Liberty, August 23, 2019.

3 Ginger Thompson and Steven Greenhouse, “Mexican ‘Guest Workers’: A Project Worth a Try?,” New York Times, April 3, 2001.

4 The Border Patrol reports 7,503 bodies discovered along the border from 1998 to 2018. United States Border Patrol, “Southwest Border Deaths By Fiscal Year” (Washington: DHS, 2019).

5 United States Border Patrol, “Total Illegal Alien Apprehensions By Fiscal Year,” (Washington: DHS, 2019).

6 Thompson and Greenhouse.

7 Kevin Sieff, “Why Is Mexican Migration Slowing While Guatemalan and Honduran Migration Is Surging?,” Washington Post, April 29, 2019.

8 “In 2019, border apprehensions of Central Americans are on pace to outnumber permanent visas issued to Central Americans by more than 20 to one. For temporary work visas, the ratio is 78:1.” David J. Bier, “Legal Immigration Will Resolve America’s Real Border Problems,” Policy Analysis No. 879, Cato Institute, Washington, DC, August 20, 2019, p. 9.

9 The Top 4 H-2B guest worker occupations for non‐​agricultural jobs in 2019 included 1) landscaping and groundskeeping, 2) forest and conservation, 3) maids and housekeeping cleaners, and 4) meat, poultry and fish cutters and trimmers. Office of Foreign Labor Certification, “H-2B Temporary Non‐​Agricultural Labor Certification Program — Selected Statistics, FY 2019,” (Washington: DOL, 2019).

The Top 4 H-2A guest worker crops for agricultural jobs in 2019 included 1) berries, 2) tobacco, 3) fruits and vegetables, and 4) apples. Office of Foreign Labor Certification, “H-2A Temporary Agricultural Labor Certification Program — Selected Statistics, FY 2019,” (Washington: DOL, 2019).

10 H-2B program for nonagricultural workers—most of whom are also Mexicans—doubled in size when Congress allowed H-2B “returning workers” to be exempt from the cap in 2007. U.S. Department of State, “Nonimmigrant Visas Issued by Classification, Fiscal Years 2003–2007,” Annual Report of the Visa Office, 2007.

11 As of July 2019. U.S. Department of State, “Monthly Nonimmigrant Visa Issuance Statistics,” 2019.

Customs and Border Protection, “U.S. Border Patrol Southwest Border Apprehensions by Sector Fiscal Year 2019,” (Washington: DHS, 2019).

12 Bier, “Legal Immigration Will Resolve America’s Real Border Problems,” p. 3.

13 “As violence dwindled in the late 1990s and early 2000s—from its peak of 21 homicides per 100,000 residents in 1986 to 8 in 2007—Mexican crossings fell precipitously as well, dropping from a 1986 peak of 510 apprehensions per agent to 60 in 2007. Suddenly, in 2008, the homicide rate jumped and remained at least twice as high as 2007, currently standing at three times the rate that year and the highest rate of the entire period. Yet Mexican illegal crossings continued to fall and have not returned.” From: David Bier, “Homicides in Mexico Tripled But Fewer Mexicans Came Illegally,” Cato at Liberty, August 23, 2019.

14 Ryan Dube and Robbie Whelan, “A Way for Migrants to Ease U.S. Entry: Come as a Family,” Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2018.

15 “The main reason why people who make up this migratory flow decided to leave their place of residence is because of economic factors. Very low income and poor working conditions are the main reason why 55.1% of Guatemalans and 49.4% of Hondurans emigrate, followed by 42.7% of Guatemalans and 55.9% of Hondurans who leave their country due to lack of employment and economic crises. It is worth noticing that the second reason why 33.6% of Salvadorians leave their country is violence or insecurity. This represents a decrease of almost 15 percentage points with respect to the estimate in 2016 (48.9%). Even when accounting for that decrease, in 2017, a third of the migrant flow is at risk in their country of origin and therefore could have been subject to protection and asylum in Mexico. On the contrary, violence or insecurity report lower values for Hondurans and Guatemalans; 6.1% and 0.2%, respectively.” (translated from original in Spanish) El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, “Encuesta Sobre Migración en la Frontera Sur de México Informe Anual de Resultados 2017,” (Tijuana, 2018), p. 30.

16 “U.S. wages for people migrating illegally to the United States tend to be about 13 to 14 times the wages available to them in their home countries of Guatemala and Honduras.” From: National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events University of Southern California, “Northern Triangle Migrant Flow Study: Final Report,” Institute for Defense Analyses, September 30, 2018, p. v.