Guest-Worker Caste System
March 16, 2007
Amy Traub is associate director of research at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. She is the author of the DMI report, “Principles for an Immigration Policy to Strengthen and Expand the American Middle Class.”
As our country struggles under a failed immigration system, as evidenced by the recent workplace raids in New Bedford, Mass., news has spread that Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., may reintroduce the bill that came out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last spring in order to get the process of immigration reform moving. It would be a shame if this new strategy took us right back to where we were before the election, with a flawed bill heavily influenced by the anti-immigrant forces. Our new Congress should be able to resolve the nation’s immigration dilemma in a way that benefits the majority of Americans who are middle class, or aim to be.
For example, last spring’s bill contained a nonsensical multi-tiered system which would have offered legal status and a path to citizenship to some undocumented immigrants but not others, depending solely on the number of years they lived in the U.S. This measure, a superficial attempt at political compromise that responded to neither the needs of the economy nor the genuine concerns of middle-class Americans, deserves to be retired. But if Congress really wants to craft an immigration policy that would support and expand the American middle class, they should also reconsider another provision: the guest worker plan.
Immigrants, including those currently living and working in the U.S. without the proper paperwork, are vital to the nation’s economy. As workers, taxpayers, consumers and entrepreneurs, they contribute to the prosperity of the middle class. A guest worker program seductively promises to provide a legal framework for maintaining this economic contribution, allowing currently undocumented immigrants to keep working and paying taxes and providing a legal means for more immigrants to respond to the needs of the U.S. economy. The problem is that while a guest worker program would preserve immigrants’ participation in our economy, it would also institutionalize their second-tier status, to the detriment of the American middle class.
Under our current system, undocumented workers are uniquely vulnerable in the workplace. They frequently accept wages and working conditions that fall below a decent (or even legal) standard because employers can threaten to have them deported if they try to demand anything better. Entire industries, like meatpacking, where undocumented workers make up a critical mass of employees, experience a drop in job quality as the workforce becomes more exploitable. With fewer U.S. jobs offering a middle-class standard of living, the exploitation of immigrants undermines American workers.
How can we preserve immigrants’ vital contribution to our economy while also preventing their workplace vulnerability from undermining American wages and working conditions? The answer is to strengthen the ability of immigrant workers to demand a better deal at work, claiming the same wages and working conditions that similarly-skilled natives command, and in the process ensuring that employers don’t prefer immigrants simply because they are more exploitable. A guest worker program, which permanently isolates a class of workers in a separate and unequal program, cannot do this.
At its heart, a guest worker plan ensures a continued stream of workers available for legalized exploitation. The best guest worker proposals promise to enforce workplace rights for guest workers and even mandate that guest workers only be hired at the prevailing wage for a given industry. These measures, though, can only partially mitigate the impact of establishing a permanent place for temporary workers in our economy. No matter what protections are in place, their temporary status ensures that guest workers will always remain more vulnerable and less secure than the mainstream of American workers. In many cases, it will still make economic sense for employers to prefer less-empowered guest workers over natives demanding better wages and working conditions.
With all the potential for abuse, strengthening the nation’s current understaffed and inadequate system for policing and enforcing workplace rights—from the minimum wage to the right to join a union—will be all the more vital, yet guest worker programs currently on the table provide only weak oversight. And even if guest workers are guaranteed full workplace rights, how can we ensure that each successive cohort will feel sufficiently knowledgeable and empowered to exercise them? With no permanent status, guest workers have little incentive to take risks—like trying to organize a union—that are often necessary to improve wages and working conditions.
Immigrant workers have become an inextricable part of our economy, like it our not. The question is whether Congress will continue to segregate them as a second-tier workforce that constantly threatens to undermine the middle class, or devise an immigration plan that enables them to join the economic mainstream, lifting us all up.