Guest Workers, Again

Linda Chavez-Thompson, the executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO, has an op-ed on immigration in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution today that hits a bunch of good notes, including:

Temporary guest worker programs are not a cure-all. Real immigration reform cannot and should not be designed primarily to enlarge guest worker programs that have served only to provide employers with a steady stream of vulnerable, indentured workers they may exploit for commercial gain.

Right. The historical experience is pretty clear on this. Between 1942 and 1964, when immigration was still very much restricted in the United States, the federal government operated the Bracero Program for agricultural work. Immigrants who enrolled were put in holding pens at the border, waited with their numbers for a job, and then stripped and “deloused” and shuttled off to the U.S., where they were bound to their employer and virtually powerless.

As one would expect, many immigrants were exploited and denied the benefits due to them under law, and eventually the program was ended after enough allegations of abuse came to light. Not to mention the fact that growers often imported braceros to use as union-busters during farmworker strikes; plus, above all, it didn’t do much to halt illegal immigration.

Variations of the bracero scheme still remain; under the H-2A visa program, growers are allowed to import “guest workers” if they can’t find domestic help (in practice, the federal government is pretty lax about this provision). And now several immigration reform proposals, from the “liberal” McCain-Kennedy bill to the conservative Cornyn-Kyl proposal, are calling for the creation of new temporary guest-worker programs. It’s hard to imagine why they’d work any better than the Bracero Program did—”guest workers” who are in the country and tied to a single employer are going to be vulnerable to abuse, no matter what.

It’s also hard to imagine that they’ll stop illegal immigration, since, especially under Cornyn-Kyl, many workers could simply “disappear” and stay in the country once their five-year guest-worker stint is up. (That certainly happened in Europe in the 1960s—many Algerian and Moroccan workers simply stayed—which is why the programs were discontinued.)

What most of these guest-worker proposals will do, however, is allow employers to keep wages and labor standards low—after all, immigrants can’t really bargain for better pay and working conditions if they have to live in fear of being deported. Most of these schemes are awful. On the other hand, living conditions for many migrants have become so dire, and the dangers in crossing the border so horrendous, that some immigration advocates think that guest-worker programs are better than nothing. A more sensible idea would be to make sure that all workers, regardless of their nationality, are protected from exploitation, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards as far as Congress goes.