Immigration reform and indentured guest workers don’t go together

There is a widely held view in Washington that if employers don’t like the labor force they find in their area, they should be able to replace the locals with foreign workers. If people who live and work where a business is located aren’t willing to work for however little a business owner wants to pay, the business should be able to resort to “guest workers,” foreign workers who are permitted to work only for that employer while they are in the U.S. and who have to leave as soon as the employer has finished with them.

The Washington Post, for example, recently announced that any comprehensive immigration reform would have to give businesses “timely access to adequate numbers of seasonal and agricultural workers.” Francisco Ordonez, a McClatchy News reporter, spoke to Republican leaders who say that if immigration reform is going to happen, “Democrats have to stand up to unions and support an expanded guest-worker program, including some non-agriculture jobs.” The unemployment or underemployment of 15 percent of the U.S. labor force apparently isn’t enough to provide “adequate numbers.” The business lobby wants “an expanded guest worker program,” an assured supply—even an over-supply—of temporary, indentured workers who will work hard and cheap and then go home.

Bruce Goldstein, the executive director of Farmworker Justice, challenges this view:

There are many seasonal jobs: in construction, schools, tourism and agriculture. If immigrants are needed to fill those occupations and wish to reside in the United States year-round, they should be able to enjoy the freedom of the marketplace and given the opportunity to earn the right to vote. The history of temporary foreign agricultural worker programs demonstrates that they break up families, lead to exploitation of vulnerable people, displace U.S. citizens and permanent-resident immigrants, and depress wages and other labor standards for all.

In reaching a compromise to establish a sensible immigration system, Congress should not rely on programs that exploit and displace; it should stay true to our democratic ideals.

How did we get to the point that the interest of business owners in cutting labor costs became a higher priority than putting Americans to work at decent wages? Why should the desire of CJ’s Seafood to pay minimum wage (or less) to workers peeling shrimp and crawfish trump the need and desire of Louisiana workers for good jobs at a living wage?

The U.S. labor movement has supported an alternative to an arbitrary expansion of temporary foreign worker programs: the creation of an independent, standing commission to determine whether there really are shortages in particular occupations, and then to recommend whether to import foreign workers and if so, how many. A commission would consider whether it makes more sense to bring in temporary foreign construction workers, for example, or to pay higher wages to attract more U.S. job applicants, or even to train more Americans to do the work.

Congressmen and pundits who claim to trust the market and who argue to keep government from intervening in markets and distorting market signals should stay far away from bills to increase the number of “guest workers” who will have no route to citizenship. There would be a real benefit in letting the market work and forcing employers to offer higher wages to attract Americans to undesirable occupations.

Hopefully, senators like Lindsey Graham will pay attention to their own rhetoric about protecting the jobs of American workers and agree to a plan that relates the number of guest workers to actual labor shortages, rather than just to employer reluctance to pay a decent wage.