The Guest Worker: Will he or she stay?

I. Introduction

As of April 10, 2006, the Senate of the
United States was still at an impasse regarding immigration reform in
the United States. One of the most contentious topics within the
immigration reform debate has been the idea of a guest worker program. 
The House bill that was passed in December had no mention of a guest
worker program. Several versions of the Senate bill have contained
varied schemes for a guest worker program. This article will look at
the different versions of the Senate guest worker programs and the
influence of big business in developing these schemes.

II. Analysis

recent poll by TIME magazine confirms the ambivalence many Americans
feel toward illegal immigrants.[1] While a majority of Americans want
to crack down on illegal immigration, they also strongly favor
guest-worker programs and temporary visas. [2] This public ambivalence
has manifested itself in the two versions of immigration reform
contemplated by those in the House and the Senate. The House bill which
was passed in December 2005 consists of mostly draconian measures in
regulating illegal immigration.[3] These measures include treating the
mere presence of an illegal alien – currently a civil violation – as a
felony punishable by a year and a day in fail and giving any
humanitarian assistance to an illegal immigrant would be a crime
punishable by up to five years in prison. [4] Fines for employer who
hires illegal immigrants would increase from a low of $250 per
violation to an increase of over $25,000. [5] These measures did not
sit well with the American industries and led to a massive lobbying
campaign by business lobbyists. The measures adopted by the Senate were
so welcomed by the business lobby that they broke into applause and
embraced in the Dirksen office building as the Senate Judiciary
Committee voted to send the bill to the Senate floor. [6]  Has the
Senate bill struck the right balance between security and economic
prosperity or is it just a rubber stamp on the practices that help big
businesses bottom line?  This article will examine the proposed guest
worker programs found in the Senate bill and will try to determine if
the programs balance between the interests of big business and those of
the labor unions.

In December 2005, the House passed a bill, sponsored by James
Sensenbrenner and cosponsored by thirty five other members, on
immigration reform that focused exclusively on security and
enforcement. [7] The bill mostly consists of measures to prevent
illegal immigration but does not offer any real alternatives or
solutions to American industries that rely on immigrant labor. The
Senate bill, on the other hand, does incorporate a guest worker
program. One version of the guest worker program would make illegal
immigrants leave the U.S. and then apply for a two-year visa that can
be renewed twice with a one year gap between renewals that must be
spent outside the U.S. and would have a cap of six years. [8] The other
version of the guest worker program, would permit illegal immigrants
who were in the U.S. before January 7th, 2004 to apply for a three year
guest-worker visa, which could be renewed once if they paid a $1,000
fine and passed a background check. [9] After six years, if they
demonstrated English proficiency and paid another $1,000 fine and back
taxes, they could apply for permanent residency. Laborers abroad could
apply for the same visa but numbers would be capped at 400,000
annually. [10] Out of these workers only 87,000 would be eligible
annually to apply for permanent residency. [11]  Many in Congress see
the later guest worker program as disguised amnesty for illegal
immigrants and would prefer a more stringent program. [12] Yet, the
likelihood of some compromise between complete amnesty and outright
hostility will be determined by economic factors that are driving many
of the policies behind guest worker programs.

In the latest Time poll, 55% percent of Americans believe that
illegal immigrants are taking jobs that U.S. citizens do not want to
do, and therefore 72% favor granting temporary visa to immigrants to do
temporary or seasonal work. [13] However, one of the most comprehensive
studies on the immigrant workers finds that “the idea that there are
jobs Americans won’t do is economic gibberish, [a]ll the big
occupations that immigrants are in – construction, janitorial, even
agriculture – are overwhelmingly done by Americans.”  [14] This is not
to say that migrants do not ever displace American workers or depress
wages. George J. Borjas, a professor of economics at the Kennedy School
of Government at Harvard University, argues that the influx of
foreign-born laborers has shaved the incomes of U.S. high school
dropouts as much as 8%–and taken their jobs in industries like food
service and construction. [15] Andrew Sum, director of the Center for
Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, states that of the 4.8
million net new workers who entered the labor force from 2000 to 2005,
4.1 million were recent immigrants. [16] So there is a real economic
loss for those with a high school education or less.  However, there
are opportunities that are created for others on the higher end of the
job market. Daniel Griswold, an immigration expert for the Cato
Institute—argues that immigrant workers, "make the economy more
flexible and more dynamic” by allowing their employers more time to put
into higher-paying work. [17] THE AFL-CIO has criticized the guest
worker program not because of its potential displacement but because it
could potentially create a class of second class workers who do not
have the same rights as American workers. [18] Even with this potential
for abuse, the Service Employees Union International and the
farmworkers associations have thrown their support behind the guest
worker program outlined by the Senate Judiciary Committee. [19]

III. Conclusion

As the debate heats up between the House and the Senate over
immigration reform, there is a strong likelihood that some American
workers will be displaced from their jobs. The challenge for those who
are creating the guest worker programs is to ensure that big business
gets the labor force it needs to maintain productivity but at the same
time to help those who may be displaced by market forces by instituting
programs that will enable low skilled American workers to gain
employment in other sectors.  This scheme may help ease the tensions
that are simmering in the immigration debate.

[1] Karen Tumulty, Should They Stay or Should They go, TIME, Apr. 10, 2006, available at 2006 WLNR 5528556.
[2] Id.
[3] Ummesh Kher, The Proposals, TIME, Apr. 10, 2006 available at 2006 WLNR 5538569.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Tumulty, supra note 1.
[7] See Holly Bailey, A Border War, NEWSWEEK, Apr. 3, 2006, available at 
2006 WLNR 5150581. Congressman Tom Tancredo has emphatically stated the
purpose of immigration reform should be border security and not to let
criminals walk away from penalty of law. See also, Jonathan Peterson, First Aims to Prompt Senate Immigration Vote, L.A. TIMES, Apr. 3, 2006, available at 2006 WLNR 5542453.
[8] Kher, supra note 3.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] See Tumulty, supra note 1.
[13] Id.
[14] John M. Border, Immigrants and the Economics of Hard Work, Apr. 2, 2006 available at 2006 WLNR 5514699.
[15] Id.
[16] Daren Fonda, What it Means for Your Wallet, Apr. 10, 2006 available at,9171,1179367,00.html (last visited Apr. 2, 2006).
[17] Id.
[18] Press Release, AFL-CIO,  Statement by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney on Immigration Bill in Senate (Mar. 28, 2006) available at
[19] Jim Abrams, Guest Worker Programs are a Tough Sell, Mar. 25, 2006,  available at