Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Immigration: Abuse of the Guest Worker System

I’ll talk more extensively about immigration in a future post as part of my Rebuilding the Republican Party series. But today I want to talk about one aspect of it -- the H1 guest worker program. This is a program that makes a lot of sense and which we should support for a variety of reasons. But it’s being abused by big business, and that needs to stop.

The H1 program allows various industries to import workers under a temporary guest worker visa to handle jobs where there aren’t enough Americans willing or able to do those jobs. In practice, this program was aimed at Mexican farm labor. And, as a concept this makes a ton of sense. Here are the benefits:

1. American companies get the labor they need to do jobs that Americans simply won’t do. Farming is a perfect example because this is the kind of work that few Americans are willing to do anymore. The labor is back-breaking, the pay is poor, the hours are long, and few Americans live anywhere near where these farms are located.

2. To attract Americans to these farms would likely (not certainly, but likely) cost so much in wages that it would dramatically increase the price of food, particularly healthy foods like fruit and produce, to the point that it would become a hardship on American consumers and American health.

3. This protects American jobs as these farms would most likely have been forced out of business by lower cost producers in Mexico. This means that all of the associated industry that supplies these farms and moves their goods to market would disappear from our economy.

4. This program stabilizes the relationship between the United States and Mexico. By letting millions of Mexicans work legally in the United States, the chance of conflict between the two neighbors decreases dramatically -- unlike the situation where millions of Mexicans sneak across the border to work illegally, which generates tensions on both sides of the border.

5. This program allows the United States to keep track of these people, who apparently would have come here any ways and worked illegally. It also allows us to impose taxes, which can be used to pay for the social services these guest workers use while in the United States, and to limit the size of the “gray economy” -- which reduces crime.

6. It reduces illegal immigration. When we started cracking down on the border, it was discovered that our illegal immigration problem actually got worse. The reason was that when it was easier to cross the border, these workers would come to the United States to work during the growing season and would then return home. With the border “sealed,” the risk increased dramatically that these people could not get back into the United States the next growing season. Thus, they stayed here instead. . . and they snuck their families across the border. Apparently, whole villages in Mexico emptied out for this very reason.

7. This stabilizes an important neighbor by letting these workers move freely back and forth. Not only does this slowly improve the standard of living in Mexico, but these people are not dependent on criminal gangs to get them across the border.
These are significant benefits. They add to our economy, our security, and they improve the neighborhood. No Americans lose their jobs, consumers benefit, and an industry continues to survive in the United States that would otherwise vanish -- an industry that is relevant to our national security. So long as it is clear that this worker program is not a way to circumvent the immigration system, and so long as it is clear that anyone with a criminal record will be deported immediately and will be denied future permits, this system makes tremendous sense.

Sounds good so far.

But the program isn’t limited to farm labor. Indeed, any industry can apply for these permits. And that’s where the problems are arising. This program is meant to be only for jobs that Americans can’t or simply won’t fill. But several industries are instead using it as a way to get cheap labor.

For example, in 2007, at a time when most of the rust belt was already out of work, the industry that makes barges that travel the great lakes made an application under the H1 program to bring in large numbers of Vietnamese welders to Buffalo on the claim that they couldn’t find American welders to do these jobs. These jobs paid $90,000 according to the application. Are we really to believe that in the rust belt, there are no American welders who could handle this job or be trained to handle this job who would be willing to move to Buffalo for that kind of money?

Then I heard about the most shocking application. In 2007, investment bankers and market analysts roamed New York City, living high off very fat bonuses. By 2008, hundreds of thousands of these same people had been laid off in the financial crisis that sparked the Great Recession. But then the stock market turned around and each of the companies that laid off was suddenly looking to add more people. Enter the H1 application. That’s right. The financial/banking industry made an application for H1 permits on the basis that there simply weren’t enough bankers and analysts in the country to fill the jobs they needed. . . despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of them had just been laid off and remain unemployed. That’s bull.

This was a total abuse of the application process. These companies wanted to import cheaper workers from places like India with the idea that they could improve their profits by cutting their employee costs. Rather than hiring more expensive Americans, they simply wanted to import cheaper foreigners. This is not what the H1 process is about. It’s not about depressing American wages or helping companies improve their profitably. It’s about filling jobs that are necessary to the American economy but which the employers simply can’t fill with American workers or where American workers can’t be found at wages that allow the industry to survive. It’s not meant as a means for finding cheaper labor.

This is the type of behavior that exploits a valuable American program, that is abusive to American workers, that allows connected businesses to shift part of their costs onto taxpayers, and that generally reflects poorly upon free trade. Conservatives should not stand for this, nor should they support it.

So the next time you hear a lobbyist-connected politician of either party mention the H1 program, ask them to which jobs they think this program should apply.


MegaTroll said...

This is a good point. I am all in favor of free trade, but this sounds just wrong to me. As you said, "abusive" is probably a good word for it. I have no problems with the guest worker program or with legal immigration, but our government shouldn't be bringing in other workers just to compete with Americans.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mega. I very much favor immigration for a lot of reasons and I believe in free trade. But this strikes me as something completely different. You really put your finger on it when you say that these people are being brought in specifically to compete with Americans to compete for these jobs, and that's abusive.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: Excellent article, and I agree with it in almost every point. The only reason I say "almost," is that California got two fists to the face that came decades apart. First of all, Edward R. Murrow did the TV documentary expose "Harvest of Shame," which, though very accurate, destroyed the "Bracero" program rather than improving it. Under that program, Mexican farm-workers were granted easy access to the seasonal farm-work, and didn't need to enter illegally to do the job. The end of the Bracero Program also ended the logical and easily-obtained temporary work visas with that special provision.

Now we have the additional problem of very high unemployment in our financially distraught state. Throughout the Central Valley, there are so many natives out of work with no prospects of non-farm related positions, that there are plenty of natives willing to do the work that "Americans won't do." Of course, the Delta Smelt has pretty much determined that there won't be any work for anyone on the farms soon.

Those two minor detours aside, your article is 100% spot on. The destruction of the Bracero program (which heavily damaged Texas, Arizona and New Mexico as well) actually inadvertently proves your point that the H1 visa is a meritorious program. In fact, my lifelong best friend is the son of two Bracero program visa holders who loved America so much that they went home after each season, did their homework, followed all the rules for obtaining American citizenship, got permanent visa status after several seasons, took up residence in the Central Valley town of Selma, got permanent jobs with SunKist and were granted citizenship just before my friend was born--a natural-born American child of the parents of valuable naturalized citizens who followed all the rules. They were able to become productive American citizens almost entirely because of their experience with the Bracero program.

HamiltonsGhost said...

I agree with you and Lawhawk. Republicans and conservatives make themselves look foolish when they can't figure out the difference between a legitimate, work-specific special visa which often leads to legal immigrants who will become valuable, legally-observant citizens and the Democrat programs of creating wide-open borders which encourage a whole different class of illegal immigrants who are encouraged to stay here under the radar until the next big amnesty gives them the fast-track to citizenship when their very first act in our country was to break our laws. That creates a whole new criminal underclass which eventually becomes part of the Democratic machine. Republicans who don't see this difference are the ones who get us tagged as nativists and racists.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Thanks. I thought this was important to point out for many reasons. First, there are very valid reasons for legal immigration, and even more valid reasons for allowing this form of quasi/part-time immigration. And I think any immigration plan needs to take that into account. It benefits everyone.

But at the same time, the program needs to be cleaned up to prevent the abuses that are being tried by the financial industry (and others). This should not be a program that let's business import competitors for American workers.

AndrewPrice said...

Hamilton'sGhost, You're right. And every poll I've ever seen shows that the public favors immigration, but does not like illegal immigration. But too many "leaders" on the right lump all immigrants together when they speak, and that's a mistake.

We need to be very clear in what we are advocating because the Democratics (and big business) idea of open borders would be a disaster. But so would closing our borders to people like Mexican farm labor.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: You're absolutely correct about cleaning up the deficiencies in the program, not ending it. That's the main reason I mentioned my friend and his family. The parents came here on the Bracero program, but hostility to the program became intense and unreasoning after the Murrow documentary, and resulted not in the improvement of the program, but its entire elimination. Many of the deficiencies of the program could have been easily remedied (and have been over the years by worker protection acts), but in the interim, the destruction of the program left farm-workers from Mexico no choice but to enter illegally, and many to join communist-dominated unions which hide the illegals in anticipation of the next amnesty program. The unions love having them because if the worker doesn't want to join the union or opposes its goals, the union reps are quick to report them to the feds. Leftist hero Cesar Chavez was a prime example of this kind of union enforcer.

The purpose of the illegal entry of farm workers was quite different from the illegals arriving now for no specific reason except to find some kind of work, any kind of work, which is often unavailable. leaving only the option of taking whatever comes along, including a lot of illegal activity, and working for unscrupulous employers who take advantage of them, don't pay their proper taxes, and are themselves criminals by their own activities.

AndrewPrice said...

Very good points Lawhawk, and yet more reasons to fix this program!

Isn't it just typical that liberalism ended up putting the boot to the very people it tried to help -- this is such a common story with liberal policies. The most recent is on American Somoa, where the Democrats basically got cost everyone on the island their jobs by implementing a minimum wage -- even though the islanders didn't want it.

Joel Farnham said...

There are two things fueling this. Minimum wage and births of anchor babies.

Minimum wage forces US to have Higher wages. Second Anchor babies are used to create families on Welfare.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, At this point, I'm just talking about the H1 program rather than immigration generally.

As I see it, the H1 program is a valuable resources that is being abused by certain groups of companies to bring in competitors for American workers. That's not what it was intended to be, and I think we need to demand a reform to the process to prevent that.

Beyond that, I think the H1 program is very much worth keeping for the reasons mentioned -- though I think it needs to be clear that this program cannot be used as a substitute for or to circumvent other immigration laws.

Writer X said...

Andrew, are there penalties for businesses that abuse the system? If yes, are they strict enough? I'm not sure if it's possible for the government to write a policy that doesn't include a loophole. In fact, I have zero confidence they can manage anything at this point.

Interesting post! I wasn't aware of the banking/financial industry making H1 applications. That is sickening. So glad to see that the Congress has stayed on top of this!

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, There are no penalties. The only penalty would be that the permit request gets turned down. But that's where the political connections come in. If you are connected, then you get your permits.

The banking industry is perhaps the most egregious abuse since they had just laid people off right before claiming there was no one who could do the job. But other industries do this as well -- like the Silcon Valley.

I think this program needs to be changed legislatively to limit it to only specifically identified fields that are determined by CBO studies. Otherwise, these permits will be issued by whoever can come up with a good sounding application or the best fake study.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Writer X, the way to get rid of loopholes is to say what we really mean. If we want Mexican farm labor, then say it -- don't try to describe it in vague terms. That's where loopholes appear, when you start trying to sound like you don't mean something specific.

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