In our national debate on immigration reform, some elected officials and business groups advocate new or expanded guestworker programs to ensure a steady supply of foreign workers to industries that relay on cheap labor. Far from being “guests” in our nation, temporary workers are too often exploited. Unlike the average citizen, they can’t change jobs if promised conditions don’t materialize. If they complain, the likely outcome is deportation and blacklisting. To keep their jobs, guestworkers too often must pay outrageous recruitment fees to land a job, live in seedy housing, be cheated out of wages and denied medical benefits if injured at the workplace.
From the Bracero program that brought thousands of Mexican nationals to our shores during and after World War II to the current H-2 system today, protections promised on paper mean little. Instead, guestworkers are systematically lied to, cheated and neglected. Hiring foreign workers harms the interests of other workers, too, by undercutting local wages. Flawed programs like these are poor models for immigration reform. It’s bad economics. Low-wage industries have little incentive to restructure production and improve wages and working conditions to make jobs more appealing to local workers.