Democrats and Republicans alike have touted guestworker programs, which grant temporary work visas to foreign workers, as a way to stem the tide of illegal immigration. The idea is simple: Mexicans are going to come to the U.S. for work one way or another, so they might as well come legally, temporarily and under government management. Jeb Bush has advocated expanding guestworker programs. The bipartisan Gang of Eight’s comprehensive immigration reform bill would have expanded and reformed them as well.
But do Mexican workers gain any economic advantage from using temporary visas rather than working illegally? Probably not — and they might even be worse off, says a new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The report, by Indiana University sociology doctoral candidate Lauren Apgar, compares the employment outcomes of guestworkers, unauthorized workers and legal permanent residents (LPRs) from Mexico.
Its findings are stark: “Mexican temporary foreign workers’ employment outcomes are as poor as, or even worse than, those experienced by unauthorized Mexican immigrants. Both groups are disadvantaged when compared with LPRs.”
Using data from the Mexican Migration Project from 1987 to 2013, Apgar looked at two employment outcomes: wages and occupational standing. Mexican guestworkers earned about the same amount as unauthorized workers — 11 percent less than LPRs, even controlling for other factors, like age and education. The average guestworker in the data set earned about $9.19 per hour in 2000; the average LPR earned about $10.34.
They also had the lowest occupational standing of the three groups — even lower than that of unauthorized immigrants. Apgar measured occupational standing, the status of different jobs, by the proportion of workers in each job with at least one year of college. The low status of temporary workers’ jobs couldn’t be explained by guestworkers’ high likelihood of working agricultural jobs, which have a low proportion of educated workers.
There may be advantages to using guestworker visas that the report does not address. Unlike many unauthorized workers, guestworkers do not undertake the peril and expense of illegal border crossings. They also do not have to break the law to work in the U.S. But they come to the U.S. for economic opportunity, and that opportunity appears to be no greater with a temporary visa than without one.
How could working legally, in a government-sponsored program, produce worse economic outcomes than working illegally? Because the guestworkers are bound by law to the employer who sponsors their visa. Apgar believes nearly all of the guestworkers she studied held H‑2 visas, either the H‑2A visa for agricultural work, or the H‑2B visa for other low-skill jobs. Both allow the visa holder to work only for the sponsoring employer. If they quit or get fired, they’re deportable.
That means that even though they’re working legally, guestworkers have little power to assert their rights. H‑2 workers may be promised one wage and paid another, cheated out of their wages or otherwise abused. Once they arrive in the U.S., however, they can’t change employers. That also makes it hard to advance as they gain job skills.
Guestworkers and unauthorized workers suffer from many of the same disadvantages. “Both temporary foreign workers and unauthorized workers feared being fired and deported if they reported violations of labor laws,” Apgar says. But unauthorized workers have one clear advantage over guestworkers: brincando, or job-jumping. Despite the risks of working illegally, unauthorized workers can often use their experience and skills to advance, either for the same employer or by switching employers. They are more likely than guestworkers to have U.S. social connections, who may tell them about other job opportunities.
There is one group of temporary workers with slightly better outcomes: H‑2A workers, whose employers pay for their housing, earn compensation closer to that of LPRs if the value of the housing is included in the calculation. But, Apgar notes, “It is also important to acknowledge that when employers provide housing to H‑2A workers, they increase their control over these workers.” That may mitigate the financial benefit.
Jim Knoepp, who manages the Southern Poverty Law Center’s immigrant justice initiative, said he’s not surprised guestworkers are no better off than unauthorized workers. “The main advantages of guestworker programs from the employer perspective is that you can access cheap labor from impoverished countries where workers are desperate and that you can control the workforce through a visa system that does not allow workers to switch employers if the pay and conditions are bad,” he told In These Times by email. “It is only logical that such a system would result in wage depression and unfairness.”
He said that a viable guestworker program would have to stop tethering the visa to a single employer. “Employers who want to use guestworker programs should have to compete on the labor market for workers just like any other employer, and should not get a free pass from supply and demand labor economics via an artificial inflation of the labor supply.”
Apgar agrees. She suggests issuing visas directly to the temporary worker, rather than granting them through the employer. “If temporary foreign worker programs are to be a viable alternative to unauthorized immigration,” she said, “temporary work visas must appeal to potential unauthorized immigrants and reduce the risk of abuses they encounter.”
But the report does not just offer empirical evidence that guestworker programs are not working they way their advocates claim. It also exposes a moral failing of these programs. A government-sponsored alternative to illegal immigration should make its users better off than those “in the shadows.” It should not ratify an underclass lacking one of the most basic rights workers have.
“It’s important to recognize that temporary workers build our homes, harvest and prepare our food, and clean our work sites,” Apgar said. “If guestworker programs are going to be a viable alternative to unauthorized migration, they should reduce the risk of abuses that these workers encounter.”