The Guest Worker Gamble
March 23, 2006
Amy Traub is Associate Director of Research for the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy . She recently completed a report, Principals for an Immigration Policy to Strengthen and Expand the American Middle Class: A Primer for Policymakers and Advocates.
Next week the Senate Judiciary Committee will likely vote on whether or not to include a guest worker program in new immigrant-related legislation.
The fight over guest workers isn’t new: Guest worker programs have an ugly history in the United States. In the 1940s and 50s, the Bracero Program brought more than 4 million temporary Mexican farm and railroad workers to the United States, where workplace abuses—from substandard wages and housing to violations of workplace safety laws—were rampant. Nor were the miserable working conditions limited to the braceros themselves. In areas where guest workers were concentrated, the bargaining power of all workers in similar jobs declined and wages decreased. The program was ended in 1965, under intense lobbying from organized labor.
Fast forward 40 years. Today guest worker programs are on the national agenda again, and this time progressives—from Sen. Ted Kennedy to prominent unions like SEIU and UNITE HERE—are supporting the idea. What has changed? And should we all be jumping on the bandwagon?
What’s changed is that we now have an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States and integrated into the national economy. While they make significant economic contributions to the country, their precarious immigration status leaves them vulnerable to the same type of exploitation the braceros faced, in the absence of a formal program. And this exploitation of workers—who can be threatened with deportation at the merest hint of an attempt to bargain for better wages or improved working conditions—poses the same threat to the Americans they share a labor market with as it did in 1965.
Enter the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, with bipartisan sponsorship from Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., and Reps. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. Progressive advocates embrace the bill’s promise to bring the nation’s undocumented workers “out of the shadows” of their illegal status and formally recognize their critical role in the American economy. The hope is that a guest worker program today will solve some of the same types of problems yesterday’s guest worker program produced.
Known as McCain-Kennedy, the bill would provide three-year work visas to applicants from abroad as well as undocumented workers currently in the United States. Both groups would be required to show that they have a job waiting in the U.S., pay a fee and pass medical and security checks. The visas could be renewed once, but after six years visa-holders would be required to either leave or apply for permanent residency in the United States. Currently, undocumented workers would have to pay a fine for having violated immigration laws before they could become eligible to participate in the program. And in order for employers to participate, they would have to advertise their job openings in the federal government’s official job bank and find that no qualified U.S. worker was interested.
Unlike the mean-spirited and impractical Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437) passed by the House last December, McCain-Kennedy doesn’t aim to enforce the nation’s current broken immigration laws in a vacuum, imposing draconian penalties on undocumented immigrants and those who seek to provide aid and services to them. Nor does it pretend that arresting and deporting 12 million people living peacefully in the United States and contributing to the American economy is feasible or desirable.
McCain-Kennedy bans using guest workers as strike breakers and prohibits employers from treating them as independent contractors. It guarantees guest workers all of the same workplace rights as U.S. citizens and, by bringing their employment out into the open, helps to ensure that minimum wage laws, safety standards and the right organize a union will be more consistently and effectively enforced. The bill also doesn’t tie guest workers to a single job, enabling them to leave an employer to seek a better opportunity elsewhere. Thus, its progressive advocates argue, the bill is a significant improvement over the abuses to which undocumented workers are currently subjected.
Nevertheless, McCain-Kennedy is far from ideal. Immigrants are still susceptible to exploitation under the bill at key points in their U.S. work experience: when they are first being recruited to work in the United States and must compete with other workers for a limited number of visas; when they fear losing their jobs because it means losing legal status in the country after a period of unemployment; and when they are asking an employer to sponsor them for early green card eligibility. The opportunities for employers to exert excessive power over immigrant employees at these junctures has the potential to shape their entire U.S. work experiences, rendering them unable to exercise their rights effectively and to advance in the workplace. So much for enhanced labor rights for immigrants, and so much for the effort to prevent exploitation that drives down wages and working conditions for U.S. workers.
Equally troubling is the way that, as a formal government program, McCain-Kennedy institutionalizes guest workers’ second-class status, marking them as a group that, for all the attempts to enforce labor law, remains more vulnerable and less secure than the mainstream of American workers. While McCain-Kennedy creates a path to full citizenship for guest workers that is currently blocked off, the existence of the program ensures that there will always be more temporary, disposable workers to take their place.
This is an inherent problem with even the best-run, most efficiently-enforced guest labor program and is why, when you scratch the surface, few of the labor and immigrants’ rights advocates lining up in support of McCain-Kennedy are really prepared to argue that a guest worker program is the ideal solution to the nation’s immigration dilemma. Rather, in a viciously anti-immigrant political climate characterized by the punitive Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act that the House of Representatives passed in December and that is provoking protest rallies across the country, McCain-Kennedy’s backers argue that it is the most politically realistic way to legitimize the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants our country depends on.
They are right: McCain-Kennedy is the best bill on the table with a reasonable chance of moving forward. While bills proposed by Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., and Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, would simply legalize the status of immigrants who have lived in the U.S. peacefully for a number of years, these bills aren’t going anywhere.
The debate over McCain-Kennedy comes down to this: do we take a stand against the principle of a guest worker program that would permanently institutionalize a two-tier labor market, even if a better solution seems a long way off? Or, focusing on the dramatic problems with a status quo that exploits undocumented workers and undermines their native counterparts, do we fight for the partial solution that seems within reach? Reports that McCain-Kennedy may be further watered down to win additional support on the Senate Judiciary Committee provoke a further question: how much compromise is too much?