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< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily < Back to current issue of Immigrant's Weekly

Testimony of Susan Martin

Director, Institute for the Study of International Migration

Georgetown University

Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims

Committee of the Judiciary

House of Representatives

June 19, 2001

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I want to thank you for this opportunity to testify at this hearing on guestworker programs. I serve as the Director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration in the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. My interest in these issues goes back a number of years. When I served as Executive Director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, we looked closely and very skeptically at proposals for an expanded temporary work program for unskilled foreign workers. As Coordinator of the Binational Study of Migration between Mexico and the United States, I examined the prospects for a bilateral program and agreed, as discussed below, with the findings of our expert panel that the two countries should be very wary about this approach. More recently, I co-chaired a transatlantic working group on migration that reviewed guestworker experiences in both North America and Europe before issuing its report, Migration in the New Millennium, that laid out criteria for temporary work programs.

To set the stage, let me begin with some general comments about migration and Mexico-US relations today, with the recognition that the majority of guestworkers, at least initially, would come from Mexico. Migration and border control issues are high on the US-Mexico bilateral agenda. With the exception of drug trafficking, no issue has provoked as much tension in US-Mexico relations as the unauthorized movements of Mexicans into the United States. Although the unprecedented economic expansion of the last decade in the United States has reduced public anxiety about unlawful migration, a threatening downturn could well re-ignite a very acrimonious debate over immigration policy.

The apparent good will between Presidents Bush and Fox presents a rare opportunity to address immigration issues constructively. There is much that can be done to facilitate legal movements across our shared border, including commuter lanes, improvements in infrastructure, and increased staffing of inspection lanes. The United States could take steps to reduce backlogs in our legal immigration system by giving priority in admissions to nuclear families - a substantial portion of which are Mexican - and making the visa numbers available to meet that priority promptly. And we can restore eligibility for limited social benefits to lawful permanent residents, which would be of immense short-term help to the large number of working Mexican immigrants who now live in poverty.

On its side, Mexico could build on the highly successful units known as "Grupo Beta" that protect border crossers from violence and exploitation. More effective investment of the remittances sent by US-based migrants to their home communities could stimulate jobs and economic opportunities in Mexico. President Fox pioneered such efforts successfully while governor. Both countries should continue to work together to break up smuggling rings that exploit and often endanger migrants and often threaten law enforcement officials on both sides of the border.

With regard to guestworker programs, however, the two nations should be very cautious. Seasonal worker programs should be implemented only under certain conditions, none of which are present in current proposals.

First, there must be an adequate level of control over unauthorized entry and work or the guestworker program becomes a supplement rather than a substitute for illegal movements. The experience of the Bracero program, which authorized Mexican agricultural workers to enter the U.S. from 1943 to 1965, is a case in point. Apprehensions of unauthorized migrants reached its then peak of one million arrests in 1954 despite the Bracero program. In fact, most immigration experts believe that the Bracero program stimulated the unauthorized flow that has continued to this very day. With this experience in mind, the Binational Study of Migration between Mexico and the United States, conducted by 20 experts from both countries, concluded that an expanded foreign worker program "is unlikely to be an effective remedy to unauthorized migration." No matter how generous the admission numbers are in the temporary work program, they are unlikely to be sufficient for all migrants seeking jobs. Moreover, many unauthorized migrants are employed in full-time, permanent jobs in urban centers--not in the seasonal work envisioned by most temporary work schemes. Since controls on illegal entry and, even more importantly, on illegal work are notoriously weak in the United States, a new guestworker program is likely to have the same effect.

Guestworker programs can also increase the reliance of employers on foreign labor, a dependence that is difficult to break even if changing economic conditions should lessen demand. To be an effective remedy to labor shortages, there must be incentives in place for employers to hire domestic workers or take other actions, such as mechanization, to reduce dependence on foreign workers. Without such incentives, the availability of cheap foreign labor hampers market reforms that would make these industries more efficient. A visit to the raisin grape harvest in California illustrated the point for me. While some growers mechanized and reduced their need for labor by a significant degree, others were unwilling to invest in new equipment and plantings--even though they could recoup their costs in as little as three years--as long as cheap labor was available. The situation with guestworker programs in Europe has been similar. Employers did not want the guestworkers to depart at the end of their stay, and they were influential in the adoption of policies that permitted the workers to remain permanently and bring their families. At a minimum, employers hiring temporary workers should be required to pay fees that would support mechanization and other initiatives to reduce the need for a continuing supply of foreign labor. Otherwise, government--in supporting the admission of temporary workers--will be subsidizing inefficiencies.

A third necessary ingredient involves protection of the rights of temporary workers and the communities in which they work. By definition, guestworkers are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Their ability to remain in the country is directly tied to the willingness of businesses to employ them. Even though some of the proposals would allow workers to seek new employers, complaints about wages and working conditions often give workers bad reputations that precede their searches for new work. The promise of permanent residence if they complete a designated number of days of work, a feature of some proposals, makes the temporary worker even more fearful of losing employment. A more effective set of worker protections, and significant penalties for employers who violate them, must be a part of any temporary work scheme.

Provisions to meet these conditions could be integrated into new legislation, but they would diminish the attractiveness of a guestworker program to agricultural growers and businesses that now hire illegal workers. The controls on unauthorized movements are far from becoming effective and would require resources and political will that has been severely lacking.

Without such conditions in place, an expanded guestworker program is clearly undesirable.

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by the late Barbara Jordan, concluded in 1995 that a guestworker program would be a "grievous mistake." Six years later, it would still be a grievous mistake to take this route, particularly in the absence of necessary safeguards, and Congress would be wise to proceed very cautiously.


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