During a speech last week in Mexico, President Bush renewed his pledge to reform immigration law and establish a temporary guest worker program. Bush claimed that such a plan was compatible with both legal and humanitarian concerns because reducing the motivation for illegal immigration would help curb exploitation of immigrant labor.
One day before that speech, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report called “Close to Slavery” which details the failings of past and present guest worker programs in the United States. In particular, the H-2B visa program, which allows domestic firms to recruit foreign workers for agricultural and food processing jobs, is particularly flawed. According to the report, the program provides no protection for the health or well-being of guest workers, and no legal recourse for those workers when their employer lies, cheats them out of wages and profits at their expense. Without labor protections, under the threat of arrest, deportation, and blacklisting, guest workers are at the mercy of employers who routinely overwork and underpay them, keep them living in squalid conditions, overcharge them for housing and basic necessities, and verbally and physically abuse them.
It is theoretically possible that a guest worker program could be created that contains adequate protection for foreign laborers. But strong protections require strong enforcement, and that enforcement is already seriously lax. The number of investigators employed by the Department of Labor has been falling steadily for the last three decades, and current trends in government funding don’t suggest that will change. Without such enforcement, no program will provide sufficient protection against exploitation or direct harm of powerless foreign laborers.
Even with ideal protections in place, guest work programs are a poor idea. Such programs encourage the commodification and trafficking of human beings. They push wages down for all workers, both foreign and domestic. They make it easy to over-supply the labor market, giving employers the power to control wages, undercut collective bargaining, and effectively disable unions. Finally, guest worker programs institutionalize an uneven power relationship between the United States and those foreign economies that have already become dependent on the meager income stream provided by guest workers.
The current administration is adamant that immigration reform must include a guest worker program, but the history of such programs suggests that another such effort would be ill-advised. If we must have such a program, it must include anti-exploitation provisions and adequate funding to enforce those provisions. It seems unlikely that President Bush’s plan is going to do either; his guest worker proposal will most likely be designed to protect U.S. firms, not foreign workers. And without these protections, a guest worker program should not be part of this country’s current or future immigration policy.
Christopher Carnahan Graduate Student, Philosophy