Tag Archives: Daniel Costa

Guest worker programs and worker abuses

A while back, Daniel Costa of the progressive Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that advocates for the interests of poor Americans, did an interesting blog post titled On International Migrants Day, remember that guest worker programs aren’t the solution for immigration reform. This met with a lot of pushback on Twitter, and Costa followed up with a related blog post describing what he considered to be extensive abuses in guest worker programs in the United States (the H2 visa program). Among the stories that Costa linked to were Filipino teachers being conned by a recruiter, workers reporting exploitation by a seafood company in Louisiana that supplied to Walmart, and a negotiated settlement about people under J-1 visas being exploited at work. Based on these and other incidents, Costa is understandably very skeptical of proposals that go by the name of guest worker programs.

I will not commit the moral and strategic error of shrugging off the problems of current H2 visa programs in the US with “not as bad as” trivialization. I think that problems and abuses at guest worker programs, while not the worst thing in the world, are definitely worth putting in the balance when proposing the expansion of guest worker programs. However, I think that Costa’s prescriptions don’t necessarily follow from his observations.

Guest worker programs: tied to an employer?

Most open borders advocates view the keyhole solution of guest worker programs as a half-way compromise, not a desirable ideal (in the jargon of this blog post, they tend to have a (1) > (2) > (3) preference ordering: open borders preferable to expanded guest worker programs preferable to the status quo).

As the guest worker programs page on this site describes, there are many different parameters whose values can be fiddled and adjusted while still staying within the broad category of guest worker programs: the time duration of the program, flexibility in terms of jobs, extent of legal rights, eligibility for citizenship, deportation conditions, and eligibility for welfare benefits being the parameters listed on the page. Of these, the first three (time duration, flexibility in terms of jobs, and extent of legal rights) are the most relevant for considering the problem of worker abuse. The kinds of guest worker program solutions that open borders advocates typically propose are those with essentially unlimited (or periodically renewable) time duration, the ability to switch jobs at will (i.e., not tied to any particular employer), and full legal rights (however, some proponents of these programs oppose some labor regulations per se, like the minimum wage, for natives as well as foreigners). Further, as a general rule, people coming at guest worker programs from an open borders angle oppose quantity caps on the amount of guest worker labor that can be used.

I think that these key elements will lead to abuses of the kind that Costa sees in current guest worker programs becoming more rare. With the status quo in the US, guest worker programs are heavily time-limited and tied to specific jobs. There is also a pretty severe quantity restriction on these programs. This makes it extremely hard for workers to “shop” between employers, both at the time of applying for a visa, and once they are in the US. Their main element of discretion is in whether they choose to come the next year. Even in the status quo, reputational effects and the need for good worker morale check some worker abuses. But with fewer quantity caps, fewer time limits, and the ability to switch between jobs, worker abuses are likely to be lower as workers can “shop” better.

A quick analogy might help. Suppose a particular factory is the main employer in town, and it pays its workers very low wages and has demanding working conditions. Now, a competing factory wants to open up in the same town. Should the residents of that town fear the new factory, based on the rule that factories exploit their workers? Or should they welcome the new factory, in that the competition between the two factories may improve conditions for workers? While the details vary from case to case, I would suspect the latter.

Now, admittedly, the cases aren’t quite parallel, because in the analogy I gave, the population of the town was not changing. But if the creation of a new town just attracts more labor from outside the town, then the effect on wages in the original factory may be smaller (though probably still positive). Even here, though, unless you discount completely the welfare of people who move to the town, the net effect on wages is still expected to be positive.

It might be helpful to look at a blog post from Michael Clemens on migrant labor in the US agricultural sector. Here’s what Clemens says:

If you think these difficult jobs are bad for Mexicans, think about this: 85% of the NCGA’s Mexican seasonal employees last year were repeat employees. They came the previous season, and they chose to come back the following season. It is inappropriate and unfortunate that some labor advocates call H-2 visa jobs “close to slavery.”Slaves had no such choice, and would not have happily gone back to the plantation that owned them. Furthermore, the H-2 visa holders who work for the NCGA are not tied to a single farm: their visa allows them to work throughout the 700-farm network, so that there are opportunities to move if any given farm violates labor standards. Any shortcomings of the H-2 program are not the fault of migration itself; they can be fixed by fixing the program.

I don’t have independent corroboration of these statements, but it does seem to make sense that workers whose visa allows them to switch employment between a lot of farms in a huge network would be less susceptible to the problems of worker abuse. Repeat seasonal migration also creates incentives for employers to treat workers fairly and honestly.

Note: I read through the Red Card solution website, which offers a detailed guest worker program proposal for the US, and I was disappointed to see that the proposal did not address the issue of how this proposal would accommodate the possibility of workers changing employers — would they need to return to their home country to re-apply, or could they change their authorization while still in the US? Continue reading “Guest worker programs and worker abuses” »

How opponents of immigration on the left and right differ: territorialism versus citizenism

Post by Vipul Naik (regular blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

Alex Nowrasteh recently tweeted criticisms of open borders from two fronts: Daniel Costa of the progressive Economic Policy Institute in a blog post titled On International Migrants Day, remember that guest worker programs aren’t the solution for immigration reform and Mark Krikorian of the center-right Center for Immigration Studies in a piece on National Review titled Black Unemployment: Just Don’t Mention the Immigration!

So I read both pieces. What struck me (and I also tweeted this) was that a quick reading of the articles wouldn’t reveal clearly which one was coming from a progressive/left-leaning perspective and which one was coming from a right-leaning/conservative perspective. Superficially, both arguments fell under what Bryan Caplan might dismiss as the master race argument — the idea that low-skilled natives are the ultimate interest group who should be given special preference in any policy discussion. It’s not my place here to critique this line of argument (though, if you’re interested, Nathan Smith blogged about teens and immigrants a while back, and Alex Nowrasteh had a critique of a related CIS study several years ago).

The point I want to make is that, despite the superficial similarity in the two pieces, there is one important difference, which I think is the key difference between the left-wing/progressive segment of opposition to open borders and the right-wing/conservative segment of opposition to open borders. Namely, progressive opponents of open borders tend to be influenced by a mix of territorialism and local inequality aversion. Their sphere of moral concern includes everybody who is within the geographical territory of their country, including citizens and non-citizens, and including both legal and illegal immigrants. And, in addition to being concerned about the absolute status of these people, progressive opponents of immigration are also concerned about inequality within the territory. As Arnold Kling notes in his three axes theory, the distinguishing feature of progressives (compared to conservatives and libertarians) tends to be their tendency to give more importance to the oppressor-oppressed axis (I’ve also written about why I find this sort of folk Marxism unconvincing, even when it is ostensibly pro-open borders). Combining a focus on the oppressor-oppressed axis with territorialism and local inequality aversion produces the kinds of proposals and concerns that Costa raised in his EPI blog post. Explicitly, it generally involves a combination of a path to citizenship, stricter enforcement, strong laws against worker exploitation, and an immigration policy designed to benefit currently low-skilled natives.

Anti-immigration individuals on the center-right, which probably includes all the hardcore restrictionist groups from CIS to VDARE and anti-immigration voices in more mainstream conservative outlets, are more likely to favor citizenism instead of territorialism. They are more likely to favor policies that explicitly discriminate in favor of current citizens. Immigrants and non-citizens who happen to reside within the geographic territory do not get the special status that citizens do, and in so far as they crossed borders illegally, it is considered moral to deport them. As per Kling’s three axes, center-right individuals are likely to be more focused on concerns of civilization versus barbarism, and while the alien invasion metaphor is probably an exaggeration, basic concern about how illegal immigration undermines the rule of law adds to the general worries about the harms created by immigration. Thus, center-right restrictionists are more likely to favor reform proposals that include attrition through enforcement and stronger border security while simultaneously reducing future levels of legal immigration, and while they are not completely averse to a path to citizenship, they would probably insist that it be restricted to a very special subclass (for instance, Mark Krikorian has expressed support for a version of the DREAM Act, but not the current version being passed around).

All in all, the main difference between progressive restrictionists and center-right restrictionists lies in how they want to deal with the illegal immigrants already here. Generally, restrictionists in both camps agree that future immigration levels need to be cut down or tailored to the interests of low-skilled natives, that enforcement (both at the border and in the interior) needs to be stricter, and that large-scale guest worker programs create more problems than they solve. Nonetheless, the differences between these two groups present unique challenges to those who are trying to come up with keyhole solutions. A keyhole solution that denies a path to citizenship, or walls off eligibility to the welfare state, might appeal somewhat to some (but not all) center-right restrictionists, but would be taken very negatively by progressive restrictionists.

A quick final note: I don’t mean to suggest that anybody who subscribes to citizenism or territorialism must necessarily be a restrictionist. Open borders do benefit many citizens, and keyhole solutions can be devised that help make them a win-win for the vast majority of citizens and those living in the geographical territory (as an example, see Nathan Smith’s DRITI proposal, or his blog post the citizenist case for open borders). Progressive restrictionists concerned about a path to citizenship might nonetheless come to the conclusion that expanded guest worker programs, despite their ills, and despite the lack of a path to citizenship, are still an improvement over the status quo. While I personally think of both citizenism and territorialism as morally flawed, there is no prima facie inconsistency between adopting these stances and supporting considerably freer migration than the status quo allows.