Allow Renewals for Guest Worker Visas

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Reforming low-skilled guest worker visas is a vitally important part of immigration reform. It will substantially reduce unauthorized immigration by providing a lawful pathway to enter and reenter the U.S. To that specific end, an effective guest worker visa has to be designed to address how migrant and guest workers actually behave. Allowing a guest worker visa to be renewed multiple times for each worker, assuming the worker follows the law when in the U.S., will decrease the incentives to migrate unlawfully. For each theory of migrant movement, allowing a guest worker visa to be renewed multiple times is compatible with migrant actions and will decrease unauthorized immigration. Here are the theories:

Target Income Theory

Under the target income theory, migrants come to the U.S. to meet a specific monetary or life goal, like starting a business or buying a house back home, that they would be unable to meet in their home country. Upon reaching the monetary threshold for that goal, they return home. According to this theory, a recession in the U.S. would cause migrants to stay longer until they meet their targeted goal, while higher migrant wages or an economic boom would make them return sooner.

If a migrant behaves according to this theory, he will work until the goal is met. Let’s say a guest worker visa allows a migrant to work in the U.S. for 10 years but no longer. If, at the end of that period, the migrant requires 2 more years of work to reach his income goal, the migrant will be tempted to overstay and work illegally until the goal is met. In this case, allowing the guest worker to legally stay longer and meet his goal will decrease the incentive to overstay on the visa. If the target income theory explains migrant behavior, allowing many visa renewals will help decrease unauthorized immigration. Renewable visas will allow immigrants to satisfy their income goal and return home.

Disappointment Theory

According to this theory, migrants return home if the economic conditions in the U.S. are less favorable than they imagined, or if the economic conditions in their home country improve. Migrants would prefer to return when conditions improve, at least temporarily, but many stay in the U.S. longer because it is difficult for them to reenter should they ever want to. The depth of migrant social networks in their home and destination countries greatly influence this effect.

Guest worker visas that could be renewed multiple times will incentivize migrants to return home when conditions there improve because they will not fear being stuck there if they deteriorate.

Circular Migration Theory

To distinguish circular migration from the disappointment theory above, migrants come to the U.S. for seasonal or yearly work but move back and forth as labor demand for their occupations changes. Beginning in 1986, this circular movement between Mexico and the U.S. was interrupted with expanded border security that increased the length of time that unauthorized migrants stayed here, which in turn increased the likelihood that they would settle permanently. Because migrants suddenly faced the possibility of being stuck in Mexico if they ever left, they decided to stay and work.

If those migrants had a lawful way to cross the border, many would have returned to Mexico just as they did when the Bracero Program offered a visa to do just that. Renewable guest worker visas will allow some legal migrants to move back and forth for seasonal labor, lessening the incentive to illegally stay once here.


Migrants come for different reasons. Migrant actions might exhibit some or all of these theories, or enter the U.S. with one in mind and then switch to another during their stay. No matter which theory provides a better explanation of why migrants come, making the visa renewable as many times as possible will substantially decrease the incentive to migrate illegally or overstay a visa.

Creating a guest worker visa that can be renewed multiple times will allow migrants to legally work in the U.S., leave while preserving the possibility of legal return, and thus reduce unlawful entry and visa overstays. A flexible and numerically large guest worker visa program will substantially reduce the supply of unauthorized immigrants by channeling them into the legal market. The more times that such a visa can be renewed, the more effective it will be at decreasing unauthorized immigration.

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