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News from EPI 1.42 million temporary foreign workers were employed in the United States, according to new estimates by visa class

In a new report, EPI Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research Daniel Costa and Jennifer Rosenbaum, a Visiting Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School and former Legal and Policy Director for the National Guestworker Alliance, provide estimates of the number of temporary foreign workers, or “guestworkers,” in the United States. They find that 1.42 million guestworkers were employed in the United States during fiscal 2013, either for the entire year or some part of it—roughly equivalent to 1 percent of the total U.S. labor force. To devise their estimate, the authors analyzed both publicly available and unpublished government data, explaining their methodology in detail and discussing the quality of data for each nonimmigrant visa.

“These new estimates provide a much-needed detail on the makeup of the labor market,” said Costa. “Guestworkers are easily exploited because their visas are tied to their employer, making it harder for them to report wage theft or dangerous working conditions or bargain for higher wages. With guestworkers making up about 1 percent of the labor market, it’s clear that serious reforms are needed to these programs.”

Unlike lawful permanent residents, guestworkers are only authorized to work in the country for a set period of time, and most are required to remain with one employer. Some of the largest visa programs are the H-1B visa for skilled workers with at least a college degree, the J-1 exchange visitor program, and the L-1 for intracompany transferees. Surprisingly, there is very little data on the number of guestworkers by visa classification. While the U.S. government collects a substantial amount of information on nonimmigrants and their employers, these data are inadequate, generally of poor quality, recorded in an in an inconsistent manner across federal agencies, and most are not publicly available.

“There have been calls on both sides of the aisle to reform guestworker programs, but the lack of data means the public debate is not well informed,” said Costa. “It’s difficult to assess these programs’ impact on the labor market and for lawmakers to make policy choices about them if we don’t even know how many temporary workers are employed at any given time. While more information is needed, this estimate gives us a better picture of the overall landscape.”

It is clear that Congress and the federal agencies in charge of immigration have not prioritized achieving a detailed understanding of the size, scope, and economic impact of temporary foreign worker programs. The authors make a number of recommendations to improve the ability of policymakers and the public to make more informed policy decisions regarding these programs, including:

  • Federal agencies in charge of managing immigration and collecting immigration data—especially the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Department of Labor—should improve their record keeping practices, by collecting all nonimmigrant visa data electronically and using consistent categories and classification codes across visa classifications.
  • Federal agencies should regularly publish data on nonimmigrant visas by visa classification, including population estimates, and data on the employers, occupations, work locations, and wages of temporary foreign workers.
  • Congress should pass legislation requiring annual publication of basic data on nonimmigrant visa classifications, and require cooperation between federal agencies in order to improve the quality of data on nonimmigrant visas, and it should appropriate a reasonable level of funding to achieve these goals.
  • Congress should create a new independent advisory commission staffed with labor market and other technical experts who can advise Congress on immigration and the labor market, as well as be tasked with improving data collection and dissemination, and providing Congress and the president with new and improved analyses on nonimmigrant visas and all other U.S. labor migration programs.