4 Reasons Guest Worker Programs Have Failed in the Past

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One of the most important components of any immigration reform bill will be how the immigration system will be changed to deal with future waves of immigrant workers in manual labor sectors.

Last week, leaders from business and labor came to an agreement in principle that will likely serve as a guideline for any legislation in Congress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO are calling for the creation of a new visa for what they're calling "lesser-skilled workers."

See Also: Business and Labor Make Immigration Deal

The visa would not be another guest worker program, according to Ana AvendaƱo, a top immigration policy aide at AFL-CIO. That distinction is important, mainly because guest worker programs, as we know them, have a bad track record.

Here are some of the ways that guest worker programs have failed in the past, and how the newly proposed visa might do better:

1. Lack of Worker Protections

One of the biggest guest worker programs in the history of the U.S., the Bracero program, admitted more than 4 million farm workers from Mexico from 1942 to 1964. On paper, labor protections looked relatively good, with workers receiving government-supervised contracts, housing and a salary that would amount to at least the minimum wage spelled out in the contract. The Bracero program, as it was originally conceived, was "the most comprehensive farm labor contract in the history of American agriculture," according to Cindy Hahamovitch, a professor at William & Mary who has written extensively about guest workers.

But in practice, immigrant workers faced several types of abuses, Hahamovitch says. Growers regularly disregarded promises made in contracts, she writes in her book No Man's Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor. Mexican news outlets also reported instances of physical abuse and discrimination.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Bracero program -- a problem that extends to other guest worker programs in the U.S. -- is that workers were tied to a single employer or recruiter, and could face deportation if they complained.

That's something that could be corrected with the new visa being proposed by business and labor. First of all, the new visa would allow workers to eventually move beyond a temporary immigration status, so the goal would not be to cycle workers out of the country within a certain number of months. The visa would also give workers the ability to switch employers, but "in a way that still gives American workers a first shot at available jobs," according to a joint statement by the Chamber and the AFL-CIO. So the new visa would be a way to fill manual labor jobs, but at the same time give immigrant workers the ability to stand up to unscrupulous employers -- hypothetically.

2. Too Cumbersome for Employers

On Tuesday, a hearing in the House will look into the need for a temporary guest worker program for the agricultural industry. And a group of Democratic and Republican legislators working on immigration reform in the Senate have already said that agriculture should get a special deal.

With that in mind, you might be surprised to learn that growers already have a temporary guest worker program. But few growers actually use it.

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