Tag Archives: guest worker programs

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.

Path to Citizenship vs. Legalization: Let the Immigrants Choose

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

Representative Goodlatte (R-VA) is working toward a compromise on legalization and a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.  This issue is the current bottleneck in the immigration reform debate.  Many Republican, Goodlatte included, are skeptical of a path to citizenship for current unauthorized immigrants.  Many Democrats, however, will not support immigration reform unless some unauthorized immigrants are allowed to become citizens eventually.  Could this impasse make immigration reform impossible this year?

Goodlatte’s proposal, as far as we know, would be to grant unauthorized immigrants provisional legal status.  They would then be legally allowed to work and live here but only eligible for a green card or citizenship if they use the existing immigration system.  This proposal would shrink the number of unauthorized immigration who could eventually earn a green card or gain citizenship.

I suggest a third proposal: create two paths toward legal status.

The first path should lead to permanent legal status on a work permit that cannot be used to earn a green card unless the person marries an American or serves in the military (other categories should be considered too).  This path could be relatively easy and cheap, preferably a few hundred dollars to pay for the paperwork processing fee as well as criminal, national security, and health checks.

The second path should be toward a green card and eventual citizenship.  It should probably be similar to the Senate plan, take many years, and cost more money.  This should be the more difficult legalization process but it should not be any more difficult than what is included in the Senate bill.

Creating two paths will allow the unauthorized immigrants themselves to choose the type of legal status they wish to have in the United States.  This also addresses some of the concerns of immigration reform skeptics while actually allowing a path to citizenship that, theoretically, most unauthorized immigrants could follow.  Furthermore, this plan is probably more politically feasible than a one sized fits all path to legal status.  The sooner a reform is passes, the sooner the deportations can stop.

Currently every interest group involved in immigration reform is trying to choose which legal status unauthorized immigrants should have.  The unauthorized immigrant should instead be able to choose for themselves.  Ever more complex legalization and path to citizenship plans of the type Goodlatte will propose will not accommodate most of the 11-12 million unauthorized immigrants here.  Several paths toward legal status should be created and the unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to choose for themselves.

Forget not the temporary migrants

There are many different ways to think about migration; when we discuss the subject, often people’s vision seems to be of someone moving with intentions of permanently settling and acquiring citizenship in their new country. Occasionally, they might give some passing thought to explicitly temporary guest workers on the side. The popular “permanent migrant” characterisation might accurately describe a lot of people, but I am skeptical that it captures the full picture. Here are some other broadly-painted immigration stories that don’t often come to mind:

  • The tourist who falls in love with a country she visits. One day while browsing job postings, she finds and applies for a job in that country.
  • The student who decides to apply for a university abroad on a whim. He finds he enjoys life there, and seeks to work afterward there.
  • The manual labourer who decides to look for construction work in a country with a better economy than his own.

These people could all follow the typically-envisioned track, and stay permanently in their new country. But they could well not: perhaps the tourist finds life in her new country is not all it’s chalked up to be. She moves on to another country, or returns home. Maybe the student and manual labourer are happy to stay and work for years, or even a few decades, but later move home to take care of aging parents and raise a family.

Common discourse around migration tends to assume two paths. Either you are:

  1. A permanent migrant, and once your visa is approved, you are on a one-way path to citizenship
  2. A temporary migrant, and you should be a seasonal commuter (working in a foreign country for one or two seasons, returning home for the rest of the time)

(Less sophisticated discussions sometimes even forget the second category. More sophisticated ones might include in the second category guest workers whose seasonal commutes are a little longer, working for the span of a few years at a time.)

But this common discourse is incapable of fitting real human beings into its shoehorned categories. Realistically, new immigrants don’t know whether they want to commit to a new country, and if so, for how long they’ll want to make that commitment. Maybe they’ll commit to it for a career, but not for family. (Or maybe it’s the other way round: I know some people who have migrated primarily for family reasons, but maintain jobs or businesses in their home country.) Maybe you commit to one country for the harvest season, but not for the rest of the year. Maybe you commit to it for only as long as construction work is available, or only until you’ve saved enough to buy what you want at home.

You might consider these trivial or rare scenarios, but I would argue they’re more common than you think. I consider myself one of these amorphous immigrants: I am a Malaysian who is currently a permanent resident in the US, but I’m not sure how long I’ll live here. The range of possibilities for how long I live and work here in my opinion range from 5 years to 50 or more. They are contingent a great deal on my career path in the US, whether my significant other is allowed by the government to live and work in the US (she is also a Malaysian), the political and economic climate back home, and what opportunities I might find in other countries.

(Speaking of countries I’ve fallen in love with as a tourist, I’ve often thought it would be fun to work in London or in another Western European city. My girlfriend thinks it might be interesting to work in Hong Kong, where she studied for a few years. If we do migrate to one of these places, who’s to say whether we’ll live and work there for 1 year or 10? Or our lifetimes?)

If you prefer hard numbers, consider the polling data: over 1 billion people (over 25% of the world’s population) say they desire to temporarily move to another country in search of work. This is about double the number of people who say they desire to permanently move to another country. I find these numbers a bit dicey for two reasons:

  1. A lot of people might not even be bothered to think of moving, permanently or temporarily, when they know that our system of global apartheid makes it impossible for most people to live and work outside their country of birth — this would artificially depress these numbers.
  2. Some people might not be sure whether they want to move temporarily or permanently. If you ask me whether I am a temporary or permanent migrant, I would honestly answer that I don’t know.

But these numbers are definitely directional. If when you think of migration and when you think of open borders, you only think of permanent settlement, you’ve erased 2/3rds of all the people who would like to migrate. You’ve written off the hopes, dreams, and futures of over 1 billion people. Open borders is not just about the permanent settler. It’s about ensuring people with all kinds of goals and motivations can make the most of themselves and contribute as much as they can.

Michele Wucker was making the case for open borders 7 years ago

I recently finished Michele Wucker’s Lockout, a 2006 book advocating a liberal US immigration policy. Superficially, it’s overly similar to Jason Riley’s Let Them In; both co-blogger Vipul and I find that mainstream pro-immigration US literature suffers from the pitfall of focusing too much on the US (well, this is a pitfall from an open borders standpoint), and being anchored too much to the status quo. However, compared to Riley, Wucker is much more solutions-focused — and from the solutions she proposes, I would actually suggest she was grappling with the early embryos of all those ideas which eventually led to the formation of this Open Borders blog.

Riley says he wrote his book to rebut mainstream anti-immigration arguments in the US, but Wucker goes one step further to propose a number of changes to US immigration policy. The first 10 chapters of Wucker are incredibly similar to Riley, but the 11th chapter is breath of fresh air. Some of Wucker’s proposals:

  1. Legal residency for current unauthorised immigrants in the US
  2. A guest worker programme or other visa system allowing more people to work legally in the US
  3. Stricter immigration enforcement against those working without permission from the authorities
  4. Penalties for employers of unauthorised immigrants
  5. Immigration processing fees (taxes?) levied on immigrants to support cultural integration programmes and jobs for natives
  6. Devolve substantial portions of immigration rule-making from Congress to government agencies, and have those agencies streamline the existing process further
  7. Establish a special cabinet-level Immigration department, to ensure a single person and agency are solely accountable for US immigration policy
  8. Consciously promote global development, both through conventional development policies and through liberal immigration policy, to reduce wage gaps between poor and rich countries, and thus reduce the impetus for immigration
  9. Reduce the quota for visas granted to adult siblings of US citizens

Most of these are what we at Open Borders: The Case call keyhole solutions — policies that mitigate the risks of migration. They might do this by ensuring that some of the gains from migration go to natives, such as through the immigration levies which Wucker proposes. Or they might do this by managing the inflow of immigrants using some transparent rules to ensure that a country’s institutions are not overwhelmed by sudden, unexpected influxes (which, at least on paper, is what a streamlined bureaucracy would be able to do).

At the same time, there are some things which open borders advocates would probably part ways with Wucker on. Wucker’s strong belief that employers should be punished for hiring unauthorised immigrants seems sincere, and not just a sop to the restrictionist crowd. I think she finds it incredibly unjust that employers can illegally discriminate against these immigrants because of their unauthorised status. She seems to hint that she would prefer the reverse of the current US system (presently the immigrant bears all of the risk in taking up employment, and the employer takes none) — which I suppose is more compatible with an open borders viewpoint. It sounds like she might not be opposed to programmatic, ongoing “amnesties” which some countries have done, allowing unauthorised immigrants to regularise their status even after entering/overstaying without following the standard immigration rules.

Wucker seems incredibly cognisant (at least relative to most participants in mainstream immigration debates) of the terrible suffering that closed borders inflict on immigrants and prospective immigrants. Because of this, I don’t doubt her sincerity in advocating a guest worker programme or something similar to ensure those who seek honest work in the US can come. Putting this in context, when she wrote, most mainstream pro-immigration activists in the US were rejecting any guest worker programme as a form of legalised slavery. Instead, Wucker explored some bold proposals for immigration reform that dovetail incredibly well with open borders and open borders-like keyhole solutions:

The solution to [the dilemmas of immigration policy] is not to dictate what immigrant workers should do but to tailor a menu of options that lets each worker’s individual circumstances guide his or her decision…we could require [high-skilled] immigrants who decide to stay in America longer than ten years to pay a premium; some of that money could be redirected to the immigrant’s homeland and/or to to job training for U.S. workers.

Similarly…lower-skilled immigrants could pay a fee if they decide to stay after their guest worker status ran out….Another possibility could be to ask guest workers or their employers to pay a deposit to be held in an escrow account; if the worker decided to stay in America, the money would be forfeited to a development bank for use in the home country.

Wucker explicitly says that immigration policy should form part of a development strategy that will close the income gap between rich and poor worlds:

Paradoxically, in the long run, the best way to slow desperate immigration is to let people come here, build their skills, and then take those skills back to their homelands. Also paradoxically, the best way for people to help their homelands is to adapt as fully as possible to American society, for this is the key to succeeding here. By encouraging people to study here and go back and forth freely, we can encourage brain circulation and the creation of industries that will provide jobs in migrant-sending countries and markets for U.S. goods.

This development focus I find incredibly unusual for a mainstream immigration policy book. Wucker wrote in 2006, before economists Lant Pritchett and Michael Clemens fully fleshed out the concept of the place premium, showing how closed borders artificially create wage gaps that result in some people earning 6 cents (adjusted for purchasing power) doing work in their home countries, for which the equivalent wage in the US would be 1 dollar. Clemens and Pritchett would go on to argue that such wage gaps, as high as 94%, have never existed between any jurisdictions that permit freedom of movement. Following from this, the labour market convergence of open borders would end the worst poverty in the world and double world GDP. It amazes me that Wucker would take this angle in 2006, before development economists had even gotten around to begin digging into quantifying how badly closed borders is holding back the world economy, and the economies of our poorest countries.

Finally, one last remarkable thing is how antsy Wucker is about conceding much ground to restrictionists. She makes the usual sops to restrictionism, such as stricter internal labour market enforcement, and reducing the number of visas for citizens’ siblings, and…that’s it. Unlike other mainstream liberalisation advocates, she doesn’t plump for a border fence, or neglect the all-important need to reform the US’s broken visa system. It’s quite clear she wants more immigrants, because morality and good economics demand this, and she’s not afraid to say it. She says she rejects open borders, but literally in the same breath insists her only concession to restrictionists will be reducing the visa quota for citizens’ siblings.

From an open borders standpoint, Wucker’s book is not particularly useful or illuminating. In a sense, because of the work of Clemens and Pritchett, Wucker’s Lockout is now substantially outdated. But it is for that reason that I find Wucker so interesting: she was advocating open borders-style keyhole solutions, using the same stylised arguments as open borders advocates, years ahead of us.

Tiered Guest Workers — Preliminary Details & Observations

This post was originally published on the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is republished with the permission of the author.

Union and business negotiators have supposedly reached a deal on the major aspects of the guest worker visa program.  The details have not been released yet and the utility of such a proposal will rest there, but here are some brief observations on the broad strokes released:

  1. Tiered visa program.  The plan appears to create a tiered guest workers visa program based on the state of the economy.  Under the first tier, firms will be allowed to hire 20,000 visas in 2015 that would ratchet up to 75,000 in 2019.  The second tier could then kick in if the economy is growing quickly and unemployment is below a preset threshold, going up to an annual cap of 200,000 per year.  Under a third tier, employers sound like they would be able to hire a large number of guest workers if they are willing to “pay significantly higher wages.”  According to the Mexican Migration Monitor, almost 700,000 unauthorized immigrants entered in 2006, up from 500,000 in 2005.  If the regulations, fees, and wage controls for the third-tier are minimal, this tiered program could reduce unauthorized immigration significantly if the sectors of the economy that employ unauthorized immigrants can apply for them.
  2. Sector limitations.  The construction industry would be limited to no more than 15,000 visas annually.  As I wrote here, housing starts provided a huge incentive for unauthorized immigrants to enter to work in construction or other housing-related sectors of the economy.  Unauthorized immigration collapsed beginning in mid-2006 as housing starts declined precipitously, reducing demand for construction workers.  But with housing starts picking up, unauthorized immigration will increase again too.  15,000 total annual visas is not enough to siphon most unauthorized immigrants seeking construction employment into the legal market.  However, details in the tiered visa system could allow for some wiggle room there.       
  3. Wage controls.  It appears that guest worker wages will be determined from complex formula that considers actual wages paid by employer to similar U.S. workers, industry wage scales, and regional variations in compensation.  Current guest worker visas are similarly regulated with disastrous and expensive results that encourage illegal hiring.  Replacing all of these regulations with a fee is a much simpler, cheaper, and effective way of incentivizing employers to hire Americans first.  Stacking the regulatory deck too much in favor of hiring Americans, even in industries for which there are very few American workers, will just incentivize employers to look in the black market – defeating the purpose of immigration reform.  More enforcement (code for bureaucracy) will either fail to halt that behavior or halt it by destroying large sectors of the economy through regulatory micromanagement.   
  4. Worker mobility.  An unambiguously positive development is that guest workers would be allowed to switch jobs very easily.  Tying guest workers to employers was always a bad policy, one that could lead to employer abuse and justified numerous bureaucrats to intrusively inspect working conditions.  By allowing labor mobility, guest workers can look out for their own conditions and switch jobs when appropriate – obviating expensive bureaucratic oversight of employers and guest workers. 

These preliminary observations are based on broad policy outlines in numerous news stories rather than actual legislation.  I will update these observations as more details are released or the actual plan is published.