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News from EPI Temporary work visa programs continued to expand under Trump—and are now in desperate need of reform to protect migrant workers

A new report by EPI Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research Daniel Costa provides a comprehensive overview of the flaws in U.S. temporary work visa programs and outlines the need to reform them and protect migrant workers.

Although the Trump administration slashed humanitarian pathways and actively sought to reduce immigration from family and diversity green card categories, the number of migrant workers employed in the United States through temporary work visa programs increased during the Trump presidency to over 2 million, according to the report.

This represents an increase of 13% from the last year of the Obama administration and showcases the reliance of U.S. employers on the programs, and the political support for them even by politicians who actively seek to restrict other immigration pathways.

Temporary migrant workers now total nearly 2.1 million—1.2% of the total U.S. labor force—but have limited rights and face challenges including lower wages, employment that ties them to a single employer, lack of protections in the workplace, family separation, and no path to permanent residence or citizenship. Many of the temporary migrant workers employed in these visa programs are in jobs deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic but have faced greater uncertainty and vulnerability.

Just yesterday, the Biden administration issued an executive order emphasizing the importance of immigrants and their contributions and directing federal agencies to review existing policies on legal immigration, with the goal of making the U.S. immigration system safer, fairer, and more inclusive. The temporary work visa programs will likely be part of that review given that they account for the vast majority of migrant workers who are admitted into the United States for the purpose of work.

Without reforms, Costa maintains, temporary migrant workers will continue to suffer and fear retaliation and deportation if they speak up about wage theft, workplaces abuses, discrimination, or other substandard working conditions. That in turn degrades labor standards for workers in a wide range of industries, but reforming the programs would improve working conditions and raise wages for all workers.

“Temporary work visa programs are an instrument ultimately used to deliver migrant workers to employers, but without having to afford them equal rights, dignity, or the opportunity to participate in political life. While work visa programs may serve as important pathways for migrants to come to the United States, their numerous flaws that undermine labor standards and leave migrant workers vulnerable to abuses clearly demonstrate a need for dramatic improvements,” said Costa. “Considering that a record number of temporary migrant workers are employed in the United States, the need to protect these workers has never been more acute.”

Costa concludes the report with specific recommendations to reform temporary work visa programs. The executive branch could implement new regulations and update existing ones—most notably to ensure that migrant workers are paid fairly through prevailing wage rules. But the most transformative and lasting solutions will require congressional action. Congress could pass laws to update, simplify, and standardize temporary work visa programs, and the most important reforms should include:

  • Requiring that all workers with temporary visas are paid no less than the local average or median wage for their job;
  • Uncoupling visas for temporary migrant workers from their employer;
  • Providing a path from temporary status to permanent residence that is not controlled by employers;
  • Appropriating more funding to labor standards agencies for enforcement and oversight of a reformed system;
  • Regulating foreign labor recruiters;
  • Passing the POWER Act to protect workers from the threat of employer retaliation and deportation;
  • Providing greater transparency across the U.S. immigration system; and
  • Making the immigration system more data-driven and flexible in response to changing economic conditions.

While other aspects of the immigration system may garner more headlines, temporary work visa programs play an outsized role in the broader immigration policy debate in the United States—and have been central to past legislative efforts to reform the U.S. immigration system—which have included a much-needed path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.

Now that President Biden has also announced his priorities for passage of major legislative reforms to the U.S. immigration system and members of Congress are preparing to introduce bills to achieve them, Costa explains that we are likely to see the business community ramp up pressure on Congress to pass their number one priority for immigration reform—namely, expanding and deregulating temporary work visa programs. This report offers evidence and arguments for why the programs should be reformed, not expanded.