Economy / Immigration

What Exactly is a Guest Worker Program?

Last week, the AFL-CIO, the largest labor union in the country, and the US Chamber of Commerce finally reached a deal on the amount of visas that will be granted to guest workers, once immigration legislation is introduced and hopefully passed.

During the last attempt to pass immigration reform in 2007, one of the main reasons that the entire initiative fell through was because an agreement between business and labor could not be reached in regards to a guest worker program. So, why’s the program such a big deal?

Well, simply put, a guest worker program is essential in assuring that any immigration proposal that is passed is successful in fixing the current dire state of the immigration system.

The majority of immigrants come to the US in order to work and create a better life for their families. However, immigrants tend to stay in the US because of the fear of not being able to get back in, were they to return to their home country after a period of working. This in turn translates to one of the biggest reasons for the current immigration fiasco.

A guest worker program is essentially a program in which a country can grant work permits to foreign workers to fill jobs within the US that are not being occupied by natives.  In theory, these workers would stay in a country for a specified amount of time and upon the completion of this period of time, would return to their home countries.

The jobs that need guest worker labor are usually found within the agriculture and food preparation industries as well as in the tourism, retail, cleaning, construction and landscaping industries. There are two types of visas that currently allow the admittance of guest workers: the H-2A visa for temporary agricultural labor and the H-2B visa for temporary non-agricultural labor.  

An effective guest worker program will provide a viable method to determine the number of workers allowed to participate in the program. For this program to truly work, the number of visas granted needs to fluctuate depending on market needs and the availability of low skilled jobs at any given point.  Businesses, not the government, should determine how many visas are granted because the government cannot project market outcomes as efficiently as businesses can. For H-2A visas, the current annual cap is 66,000- a number that is far below current labor needs.

With Senator Charles Schumer (D) brokering a guest worker deal between Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, and Thomas Donohue, President of the US Chamber of Commerce, it is becoming more evident that a smart immigration reform may finally be possible.