guest worker visa

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.

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