Immigration system should meet labor market needs and reform guest worker programs

President Obama and a group of eight Senators (also known as the “Gang of Eight”) have each released sets of principles for reforming our immigration system. Their courage and hard work to fix our long-broken immigration system should be applauded. Both plans rightly focus on granting a path to citizenship for the unauthorized immigrant population—which will allow more than 5 percent of the U.S. labor force to come out of the shadows and the underground economy. This will level the playing field for all workers (as well as the firms that employ them) and end the exploitation of foreign workers who labor without the protections offered by most labor and employment laws.

MORE: Key EPI research on immigration

What has not been discussed to a large extent—and which the president and the Gang of Eight’s frameworks do not yet address in detail—is how we manage future flows of immigrant workers, and how we fix the poorly functioning programs employers use to hire workers from abroad. Any acceptable and successful comprehensive solution to our immigration system will hinge upon this.

The U.S. temporary foreign worker programs, also known as “guest worker” programs, are notorious for facilitating the abuse and exploitation of foreign workers, for being used as a way to displace and replace U.S. workers, and as a way to suppress or depress wages in certain industries on both the high and low skilled ends of the spectrum. For years, human, civil, and labor rights groups have been exposing what can and does go wrong in these programs. Much of EPI’s research on immigration has focused on deconstructing and explaining what’s wrong with guest worker programs, and offers practicable solutions to remedy them.

EPI’s research and analysis also looks more broadly at immigration’s impacts on the labor force, and offers common sense, comprehensive solutions to fix our immigration system in a way that benefits immigrant and American workers by growing wages and increasing productivity, and by safeguarding basic labor standards for all workers. For background and information on these issues, check out EPI’s immigration resource page, which has links to many of our essential reports, commentary, and blog posts on these issues.