Posted on March 28, 2013

On Guest Workers, Slot Systems, and Servitude

W.D. Reasoner, Center for Immigration Studies, March 27, 2013

The media this past weekend have been abuzz with news that the so-called “Gang of Eight” — a bipartisan group of senators seeking a way forward on immigration reform — hit a divisive snag over the mechanisms for a guest worker program.

“Over the Hill Gang” would seem to be a more apropos moniker for these folks, given how out of touch both sides appear to be with the needs of ordinary Americans or employers, if the scenarios for the program they’re trying to construct are any gauge at all.

The Los Angeles Times reports, for instance, that “[the] plan would create a new bureau, funded by visa fees, at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services [USCIS]. The office would compare unemployment data and job demand to determine how many work visas to issue each year, up to a cap of about 200,000.” Currently, such visas are capped at 10,000.

Let’s put aside, just for a moment, the implicit irony of a group of senators (half of whom are Republicans — what can they be thinking of?) agreeing to further bloat the size of the federal government during a fiscal sequestration imposed in the first place because Congress can’t get its act together. Focus, instead, on the details:

  • First, there’s the throwaway line that it will be funded by “visa fees.” What happens if the fees fall short of the operating costs of that unit? Well, if history is any indicator, you and I, the taxpayers, will get stuck with the bill.
  • Second, there’s no indicator as to the size of this new group of civil servants. We all know that bureaucracies exist to perpetuate themselves. Ever seen a bureaucracy get significantly smaller or will itself out of existence? Not to my recollection. How might such a bureaucracy ensure not only its existence, but aggrandizement? Well, one way is to be certain of a burgeoning workload: simply determine that the maximum number of visas must be granted, right from day one. This is not only easy, but consonant with the administration’s “big immigration” views. USCIS isn’t in the business, these days, of denying or limiting much anything.
  • Third, there’s that small matter of competence. What reason have we to believe that USCIS and the State Department can handle this competently and efficiently? The facts strongly militate against that notion. Anyone who has read any of the ongoing commentaries of Center Fellow David North regarding the investor visa program, for instance, must be painfully aware of the problems that plague the way USCIS has chosen to administer that program. (See, for instance, his most recent blog on the subject, “Selective Truth-Telling in this Morning’s Washington Post”.)

But a new bureaucracy isn’t the only problem with the outlines of the guest worker program that have been leaking out. There is also an internal divide within Our Gang over wages. Quoting again from the Los Angeles Times: “One rough patch this week was over how much immigrants should be paid under a proposed new visa category for entry-level jobs such as dishwashers, housekeepers, and janitors.” Labor advocates are pressing for high wages — understandably leading opponents to challenge that this is fundamentally unfair to citizens and lawful workers already here. Big business advocates, of course, press for wages at the bottom of the wage scale, pretty much commensurate with minimum wage rates — no surprise, given their addiction to cheap (and often, at present, illegal) labor.

Neither proposal sounds particularly attractive or fair, does it? That’s the problem with creating a “guest worker” program whose only function, as best I can tell, is to try to sidestep the touchy problem of “regularizing” so many illegal workers, many if not most of whom are at the bottom of the wage, education, and skill sets of the American economy, while at the same time doing nothing to curb business’s insatiable appetite for cheap labor. Other countries, notably Australia, have recognized that trap and instead have created an immigration system that focuses on attracting, and granting visas to, the best and brightest, while our leaders are looking in the rear-view mirror rather than helping to shape the future of either our economy or our workforce.

And, finally, there’s this little nugget from the Los Angeles Times article: “Workers granted the special visas would be allowed to change jobs after arriving and would not be barred from applying for legal status as a permanent resident.” One can see how, given our nation’s past history of slavery and peonage, it would be objectionable to preclude workers from changing jobs. Not doing so smacks a bit of indentured servitude, doesn’t it? Very distasteful to our sensibilities.

But the alternative is pretty objectionable too. Consider these scenarios, all of which are highly plausible.

Case 1: A young unskilled, uneducated guest worker is granted a visa, and comes to work in the United States for the first time for a minimum wage job at which he’s obligated to pony up a certain amount for FICA (the Federal Insurance Contributions Act), and perhaps other taxes as well. That’s money directly out of his pocket for things he has no experience of, or use for. So he stays maybe a month or so, gets the lay of the land, and then leaves for another job paying not much more, but for an employer who’s willing to give it to him under the table. It all stays in his pocket. Why not go for it? He isn’t going to get any kind of amnesty or resident status. His original employer gets stuck with no employee. Así es la vida, right? (Or should I say, “Así es la visa“?)

Case 2: Another guest worker is granted a visa. He’s minimally skilled, minimally educated, but has been in the United States for significant periods in the past. He already knows the lay of the land. He takes his first job — say, in agriculture — because it’s the ticket that gets him the visa. But the work and conditions are arduous and the pay (again, minimum wage) terrible. He reaches out to buddies elsewhere in the country and, at the first opportunity, bails out of the agriculture job to work construction at a pre-stressed concrete manufacturer. Not much skill involved, but the pay is a heck of a lot better. This employer, too, is left holding the bag.

Case 3: A third guest worker is granted a visa for a low-skilled job. He’s overqualified, and in fact has some education and skill in information technology, but makes no mention of it on his application, knowing it’s against his interest to do so. (But, you argue, he will get caught at his fraud of withholding information. Do you really think so? Neither USCIS nor the State Department has a viable track record in preventing such routine fraud.) He enters the United States, lights like a butterfly on the agreed-upon job, and departs just about as quickly to sip the nectar of other, much better-paying flowers in his chosen profession. The new company doesn’t pay him what it would pay others with equal skills and background, so it’s getting a bargain (at least, until he finds a way toward his green card). The visa broker and worker make out well, but once again, the employer is caught in the lurch. Our existing low-skill immigrant visa program is already plagued with such problems, as reported here previously.

In each scenario, superficially, the guest worker program did what it was designed to do. But it is in fact a failure. Inevitably, the vacancies those workers leave behind become slots to be filled, repetitively and endlessly.

The slot system being designed will most assuredly lead big business and big agriculture to relentlessly push for a significant raise in the 200,000 cap being considered. They are already railing that it will be inadequate. They are right. But they would be right in asserting that even if the cap were a million. That’s the flaw in a slot system.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is, in a nutshell, why this guest worker program serves no legitimate national interest whatever.