The Trouble With ‘Guest Workers’

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Nathan Newman links to a new report by the Drum Major Institute noting that the easiest way to deal with the economic problems from illegal immigration is simply to give immigrants more rights, rather than trying—unsuccessfully—to immigrants from entering the country:

As long as a cheaper and more compliant pool of immigrant labor is available, employers are all too willing to take advantage of the situation to keep their labor costs down and are less willing to hire U.S.-born workers if they demand better wages and working conditions. So, U.S.-born workers are left to either accept the same diminished wages and degraded working conditions as immigrants living under threat of deportation or be shut out of whole industries where employers hire predominantly undocumented immigrants.

The solution is to eliminate the second-class labor market in this two-tiered system and allow immigrants and U.S.-born workers to compete on an even playing field by guaranteeing immigrants—including undocumented workers—equal labor rights and making sure that employers cannot use deportation as a coercive tool in the labor market.

In theory, that’s right. Immigrants end up “dragging down” wages and working conditions for other workers precisely when, as is the case now, businesses are given free rein to abuse “guest workers” who can’t speak out for fear of being deported. Now in practice, it’s debatable whether immigrants actually take jobs from native workers or pull down wages in predominantly native industries—there’s certainly decent evidence that immigrants do the jobs no native worker will accept, as the saying goes.

But the larger point here is a good one, and it’s exactly why any humane immigration policy, ideally, should allow immigration but discontinue “guest worker” policies. At best, guest worker programs don’t work—immigrants who want to stay in the country after their allotted time expires simply slip away and become “illegal” residents—and at worst they create a large underclass of indentured servants who can’t change jobs or protest their often-dismal working conditions for fear of being kicked out of the country.

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