The Agenda

Against the Guest Worker Provisions

Ramesh Ponnuru makes the case against the guest worker provisions in the Senate immigration bill in his latest Bloomberg View column. In January, I observed that some countries have established successful guest worker programs, e.g., Canada:

A small handful of countries, such as Canada, have crafted relatively successful guest-worker programs. But Canada’s program has succeeded in part by strictly regulating the lives of guest workers. Participation is limited to married men, and guest workers are isolated from the broader society. It is difficult to imagine that American civil libertarians would find such an arrangement acceptable.

The U.S. guest-worker program envisioned by the Senate immigration bill will be quite different, as Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development recently explained to Dylan Matthews of Wonkblog. After noting that the bill allows guest workers to bring their spouses and children to the U.S., Matthews asks Clemens a sensible question:

DM: It’s easy to imagine W visa holders having kids in the U.S. who would then be U.S. citizens. And given that the bill makes immediate family visas unlimited, that could be an avenue for a lot of W visa holders to get permanent residency and citizenship later on, no? MC: In order for that to affect the status of the parents, the kid would have to grow up, become established in the U.S., have a job, and then sponsor them for a parental green card, which would be at least 25 years later, by which time it would be decades since they would have to have gone back home, even if they had a child while they were on W.

It would have to be that the child grew up in the origin country, with U.S. citizenship, but they’re not going to do that without their parents. They’re going to have to grow up with their parents and then come sponsor them. That could happen, but a) it wouldn’t happen for a quarter century and b) it’s unclear at what rate that would realistically happen.

There’s always the possibility that people come on W and then overstay, but that’s the status quo. We have a massive flow of unauthorized people, and if they stay they’d be in the same irregular status. A big misconception people have around legal reforms of this kind is that when you’re talking about the law you’re talking about movement, and the law and movement are completely different things. The law is a set of mechanisms for handling movement that is already happening and will happen anyway. That is happening now, that might happen in the W visa, the only question is what the legal treatment will be.

Clemens’ reply to Matthews isn’t very reassuring to those who want guest workers to be temporary residents, as it is easy to imagine Americans finding it difficult to turn away mixed-status families. The W visa might become a new magnet for unauthorized immigrants, as large number of W visa holders and their children choose to overstay their visas. Indeed, Ramesh raises precisely this point:

One of the chief arguments for this bill is to stop enforcing immigration laws in ways that break up families. What happens when a guest worker has finished his three-year term and has no job — but has brought his family here? (Or had a child, who would be a U.S. citizen?) Will we then deport him? Or will we just let him overstay his visa and go into the shadows as an illegal immigrant?

The Canadian authorities did not devise their restrictions out of pure spite; rather, they recognized that separating guest workers from their families and discouraging their integration in Canadian society would make them more likely to return home at the end of their term. Note that Canada has a very generous immigration policy for skilled immigrants, but they have decided, wisely in my view, to treat skilled and less-skilled immigrants very differently. That is, they encourage skilled immigrants to settle permanently in Canada and to integrate into political, economic, and cultural institutions while encouraging less-skilled immigrants to earn relatively high incomes for a limited period of time and then “make room” for other less-skilled immigrants in seasonal industries, etc. 

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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