The caravan of migrants heading through Mexico towards the southern U.S border with the hope that they may enter and stay again highlights that our immigration system is in need of a major overhaul. The conversation ensues about better border security and about how we should process people who want to enter illegally or flout existing refugee and asylum laws. While much of the immigration debate have centered on border security, family separations and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), there should be better efforts to have a reformed guest worker program.
Putting a lot of pressure on border security and contributing to the large number of undocumented immigrants are low skilled workers who ventured to enter the country illegally and stayed. Some did so because it was easier than trying to enter legally or it was virtually impossible under current laws. Admitting temporary low skilled guest workers based on market and economic conditions for various industries such as agriculture and construction would alleviate these scenarios. More so, a Market empowered temporary guest worker act (METGWA) program could address the varying need for guest workers geographically from state to state and time period. Part of the reforms should include input from the states in administering or determining the number of workers needed. For example the demand for agriculture workers may be higher in states like California and Florida than the Northeast where the demand may be higher for landscapers, domestic and construction workers. At times of natural disasters such as the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma or more recently Michael which devastated southern states, a guest worker program could fill worker shortages for construction workers and manual labor.
Many guest workers have family and property back in their native countries, so a guest worker program that allows them to travel back home and then re-enter the U.S on a seasonal basis, is an incentive for them to not become undocumented immigrants. A METGWA program could allow flexibility between different job roles that have a demand for guest workers. Many agricultural areas have a shortage of low skilled workers, which often leads to spoiled produce and ultimately imports of fruits and vegetables if local farms can’t meet the demand. A guest worker program would not only help America’s ‘food security’ by having more domestically grown food, but would also help local economies. Giving higher quotas of guest worker opportunities to countries in the proximity of our borders in exchange of those countries taking steps to curb people attempting to enter the U.S illegally could be an element of a METGWA type bill.
Despite falling unemployment in the U.S there are certain industries where there are labor shortages such as in construction and technology. Even with rising wages before the hurricanes 69% of contractors in Texas said they had difficulty filling positions. About 60% of contractors in the fast growing areas in the South have been struggling to fill positions for concrete workers, carpenters and day laborers. Also no matter the economic situation, there has always been available jobs that many Americans have chosen not to do that entail manual labor or domestic help.
When I came to America and lived in the South Bronx, I noticed many people who were natural born Americans loitering around and depended on government programs. Others would take odd jobs or seek civil service jobs. Meanwhile many immigrants were eager to take jobs as landscapers, painters, and construction jobs or as domestic workers such as baby sitters and house cleaning. Some would actively stand on street corners or make themselves available for such jobs. Many would learn these skills and then go on to start their own business. A large number of immigrants didn’t compete much with American born low skilled workers, as they tended to seek different type of jobs. In some areas, construction companies have had difficulty finding American born workers for some of these jobs even after considerable efforts. An immigration study by the Manhattan Institute illustrates the divergent paths immigrants both low skilled and high skilled take versus Americans, and suggests how proper immigration reform could determine the number of immigrants admitted based on this trend. Understanding labor economics and trends is vital to immigration reform.
As part of METGWA, if the market conditions present the need for the same worker to come 6 or more times, there should be a provision for that worker to apply for an adjusted permanent status towards a green card. The result of a METGWA bill could be to simultaneously reduce the number of low skilled workers trying to enter the U.S illegally while establishing an orderly market based system of allocating this type labor needs to certain industries. At the same time, it would also help to verify if some of these people could contribute long term to the economy if they were allowed the ability to adjust their legal guest worker status to a permanent one. Some of America’s biggest success stories and household brands have been people who came here with nothing, but due to ingenuity, ambition and strong work ethic they eventually built empires.
A few years ago Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson introduced a bill ( The State-Sponsored Visa Pilot Program) that would enable states to have visa programs for foreign guest workers that are currently managed by the federal government. It would have allowed about 500,000 visas with 5,000 for each state and the rest allocated based on population. The cap would be indexed to GDP growth. It would have allowed states to have the freedom to determine which skill levels or industries would be eligible for the program. Congressman Ken Buck of Colorado at the time also worked on a companion legislation in the House. These ideas or legislations could be the components of a larger METGWA type bill. Also, an advantage of having the inputs of states on a guest worker program would be to bring more local accountability of state representatives to their constituents.
A guest worker program is only one aspect of reforms that are way over due to address the on going immigration debate and the implications of the broken and out dated system we have now. However, it would compliment the solutions to the more often aspects discussed such as border security, how to approach the millions of people in the U.S illegally and also how to admit more immigrants who can contribute to our society.