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Migrant advocates rarely say a good word about guest-work visas. Many harshly criticize the conditions and wages of authorized US guest workers as economic exploitation comparable to slavery. Often that’s where their comments end.

I reject this narrative in a letter entered into the Congressional Record last week by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), chair of the US House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

I ask: Relative to what real option are authorized guest workers exploited?

  • Relative to not migrating? No. Research by myself and other economists shows that almost all guest workers’ conditions are vastly better than if they could not migrate. Authorized seasonal agricultural workers in the US earn vastly more than they could make at home: The minimum wage for an authorized Mexican seasonal agricultural laborer in the US is around $80 per day; about 16 times Mexico’s minimum wage for low-skill work of $4.95 per day. The workers generally know exactly what they’re getting into (most come back year after year), and they line up for the opportunity. Rigorous impact evaluations have shown massive positive benefits on workers’ families as well (here and here). Authorized guest workers are the exact opposite of ‘cheap labor’; guest work visas make their labor dramatically more valuable.
  • Relative to migrating with no visa? No. Authorized guest workers earn much more than unauthorized workers doing similar work, and have much better working conditions and legal protection. There is a clear lesson of the 27 years since the last major immigration reform: without flexible, usable, legal channels for less-skilled labor at anything like the scale required by the economy, there will be much more unauthorized immigration. It’s the absence of sound channels for guest work that harms those workers, by driving them underground—as well as harming US workers, who must then compete with workers who have few protections.
  • Relative to migrating as a permanent resident? No, because almost all of them cannot do this. None of the real immigration reform proposals, now or in any recent year, would create any substantial number of less-skilled permanent resident visas based on employment. For example, in 2006 the Senate passed a bill that would’ve created 325,000 low-skill “H-2C” guest work visas. No one then dreamed of creating 325,000 new low-skill employment-based green cards, or even one tenth of that. It’s the same in this round of attempted reform: For almost all new entrants to fill basic jobs in the US, there will be no employment-based permanent residency option. So comparing their welfare as authorized guest workers to what their welfare would’ve been as hypothetical permanent residents is a fantasy. Eliminating guest work visas means eliminating the only real option for almost all of the same people to experience the benefits of authorized migration in any form.

Obviously any guest work program should protect migrant workers’ rights, making sure that they receive minimum wage, have safe workplaces, and get what they sign up for. That can be done. As I write this, New Zealand is running a highly successful guest worker program that is popular, mutually beneficial, and almost never leads to overstays. Canada’s guest work program is likewise seen as a well-functioning model that leads to truly temporary migration with big benefits for migrants and for both countries. Forget the problematic guest worker programs of two generations ago; the world has moved on since the 1950s and there are much better models now.

I support and admire sincere efforts by advocates to protect people who want to come work in the United States. But eliminating guest-work visas is not the way to do that. Millions of less-skilled foreign workers want to, and will, work in the US over the years and decades to come. The only question is whether this time there will be legal ways for that to happen. Working to eliminate legal guest work options, by ignoring the massive benefits of guest work programs while focusing exclusively on their imperfections, will relegate nearly all potential guest workers to more exploitative alternatives.

It’s time for those who advocate for the interests of foreign workers to start standing up and championing a well-designed program of guest work visas—not relative to utopia, but relative to all the meaningful alternatives those people have.