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July 1995, Volume 2, Number 7

Pros and Cons of Guest Workers

Economist Julian Simon, who has long advocated immigration as an economic panacea, joined politicians such as Governor Wilson (R-CA) in arguing that the US should re-create the "successful" bracero program that brought almost five million Mexicans to US farm jobs between 1942 and 1964. Some Mexicans returned year after year, so only one to two million individuals participated.

Simon argued for a guest worker program under which foreign workers would be permitted to remain in the US for three to five years, with priority given to illegal alien workers already in the US. Guest workers would be encouraged to return to their countries of origin by wage and income tax deductions that would be returned as departure bonuses.

According to Simon, the main obstacle to such a guest worker program is "lack of a political constituency," meaning politically weak restaurant owners and farmers.

California farmers developed a proposal in February 1995 to substitute an attestation procedure for the current certification procedure through which foreign farm workers are legally admitted if US workers are not available to fill vacant US jobs. Under attestation, the employer opens the door to foreign workers, and the door remains open until there is a complaint and administrative action closes the door. Under certification, by contrast, the door to foreign workers remains closed until the government takes action to open it.

There is widespread opposition to calls for a new agricultural guest worker program. The CIR in June recommended against such a program: "a large scale agricultural guest worker not in the national interest...such a program would be a grievous mistake." The chairs of the Senate and House immigration subcommittees, Simpson and Smith, have announced their opposition.

On June 23, President Clinton issued a statement opposing an agricultural guest worker program, asserting that a guest worker program would increase illegal immigration, displace US workers, and depress wages and working conditions. Clinton said that "If our crackdown on illegal immigration contributes to labor shortages.... I will direct the departments of Labor and Agriculture to work cooperatively to improve and enhance existing programs to meet the labor requirements of our vital agricultural industry consistent with our obligations to American workers."

Clinton's statement highlights the difference between his view of opposing guest workers to protect low-wage US workers and that of Wilson, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, who proposes to admit guest workers, implicitly agreeing with farmers who say that US workers will not do farm work.

Western growers attacked Clinton's statement, arguing that the Administration should review it before dismissing their proposal. The growers proposal, reportedly contained in a 35-page bill that Senator Kyl (R-AZ) is prepared to offer as an amendment to Simpson's immigration reform bill, would permit employers to attest that they face labor shortages despite recruiting workers at prevailing wages, to be recruited by associations, farmers or farm labor contractors, and to be shifted from farm to farm as needed, and permit foreign workers to remain in the US for up to 36 months. Up to 30 percent of each worker's wages could be withheld and sent to the US consulate nearest their hometown for pickup, or forfeited by workers who failed to appear to collect the withheld wages.

Fear that western growers may nonetheless succeed in winning a guest worker program is based on their success in 1984-85. Clinton's Chief of Staff Leo Panetta, then in the House, and Governor Wilson, then a senator, successfully made the arguments for agricultural guest workers over the strenuous objections of the chairs of the immigration subcommittees.

The 1995 fight over farm workers is shaping up as a repeat of that of a decade earlier. It appears that Rep Gallegly (R-CA) and Kyl will play the roles played by Panetta and Wilson in the mid-1980s. Gallegly June 28 asserted that 50 percent of California farm workers are illegal, and that California growers need a guestworker program.

However, the mid-1980s argument that effective enforcement may lead to labor shortages that must be met with special farm worker programs may not be as credible in the mid-1990s, since there is already a certification program through which farmers who cannot find US workers can request legal foreign workers, and a history that includes worker abuse in agriculture may make it hard to approve an attestation program that relies on self-enforcement.

Marcus Stern, "President opposes guest-worker program," San Diego Union Tribune, June 24, 1995; "Statement by the President," June 23, 1995. Julian Simon, "Foreign Workers, American Dream," New York Times, June 1, 1995.