Adjusting Foreign Worker Programs: A Proposal

Require employers to fund the education of a young American for each foreign worker visa they receive

By Kent Lundgren on September 8, 2020

Congress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and captains of industry have all become enamored of foreign guestworkers. They promote those programs without regard to their demonstrable adverse impact on American workers, even claiming that in some obscure fashion the foreign workers improve the employment opportunities for Americans. They would have the public believe that there are not sufficient qualified and willing American workers to fill their need for, as they put it, "the best and brightest". They seem ignorant of the slap that opinion is to the faces of American workers. To his credit, the president apparently does understand, and he has suspended the entry into the United States of a great many of these foreign workers until the end of this year.

In fact, those supporters of the relevant law believe that American industry profits most from the availability of the best and brightest foreign workers, foreign workers being cheap, tractable, and disposable. Those factors reduce labor costs, which pleases boards of directors and stockholders. The situation is less pleasing to displaced American workers, who are often required to train the alien workers who will replace them. A less visible factor is the adverse impact foreign workers have on domestic wage structures, for sweat is a commodity like any other; it becomes cheaper as it becomes more available.

Various categories of visas make it possible for companies to bring foreign workers in on demand. Chief among those categories is the H-1B visa, which we will let stand here as the archetype of guestworker programs. What follows are suggested revisions to the H-1B program that will benefit U.S. workers and provide companies with the willing and trained workers they need. Furthermore, the social impacts that would flow from it are substantial and desirable for U.S. society.

The following (restated) points are worth noting:

  • American companies love the worker visa program(s):
    • They believe that they cannot find American workers with the needed skills.
    • They believe foreign workers often have a better work ethic than do many American workers.
    • They know to a certainty that they can cut their labor costs substantially by using foreign workers.
    • They know that foreign workers are a more tractable group.
    • Foreign workers are a disposable and replaceable commodity.
  • Importation of foreign workers displaces American workers from the available pool of jobs.
  • Importation of foreign workers has an adverse impact on wage structures and working conditions for American workers.
  • The practice is a psychological blow to American society. Our society has a right to expect that Congress will not pass laws that encourage companies to hire alien workers to directly displace Americans from their jobs.

This practice of replacing American workers with aliens is an appalling breach of trust committed by Congress and past administrations. They have uncritically allowed these programs to morph into creatures never expected. This must stop.

Rather than draw upon foreign sources, let us consider filling labor needs from the domestic pool. To do so will take significant political effort against powerful businesses and their political allies, but the American worker (and in this characterization, we include our permanent resident aliens) deserves no less.

Corporations have become addicted to an unlimited supply of cheap labor and the profits that flow from it. The same holds true for the battalions of lawyers who make a good living manipulating the law to their clients' benefits. It would be fruitless to try to persuade them this proposal would be in their interests or serve some high-minded national purpose. What they have now works fine for them, and corporations' interests lie in the bottom line, not in patriotic loyalty; they belong to a world economy, not the United States.

What follows is the answer. It will benefit Americans, individually and as a society. Furthermore, it will benefit American companies by providing a long-term source of motivated and trained workers at little net cost to them once they grow accustomed to a new paradigm.

  • For every foreign worker brought to the United States, the employing company must underwrite the education at a university or technical or trade school, of an American.
  • That student will enter a contract with the sponsoring company to work for them for a period of years after graduation in the position the alien fills.
  • The student will study in a field that will qualify her or him for the job the alien holds at that company.
  • The sponsor will, in general terms, lay out the student's course of studies, with milestones toward graduation by a date certain with a reasonable GPA.
  • The student will finance his/her education with student loans (for academic expenses only) that, upon graduation and coming to work, the company will pay off over the contracted period of employment. If the student fails to graduate or to honor the employment contract, the loan remains hers/his to pay off.
  • After graduation, the newly minted worker will replace the alien worker brought here. There will be linkage of the actions — the alien arrives for work and the student starts college; the student graduates and comes to work, and the alien goes home after training her/his replacement for a period of months.
  • Starting wage for the fresh American graduate should reflect the U.S. general wage structure for the position, not the depressed wage being paid to the foreign worker.

A tight positional linkage between the alien worker and student is a desired end of the program, but reality will often rear its ugly head as complicating factors arise. Nevertheless, the numbers overall generally must match up. If a company benefits from H-1B workers (who are supposed to be temporary, after all) then it must be willing to pay the cost to train American workers to replace each of them rather than put the savings in labor costs in their corporate pockets.

That will eliminate the financial incentive to bring foreign workers here as a low-cost convenience. Money saved by paying low wages to a foreign worker will be spent to prepare an American worker to fill the slot. If ethical reasoning fails to persuade companies of the value of the program, then offer tax breaks to appeal to their self-interests.

Putting economics aside, there is an ethical reason for doing this. There are hundreds of thousands of smart and talented Americans of all ages who will never have an opportunity to improve themselves and society through meaningful, productive work. That begets bitterness, which begets social instability. If we do what we should do as a nation, we will open doors for them, not tell them they are not good enough to compete against alien workers. This program will offer a way out of the ghetto or reservation or other poverty pocket to those willing to work and prepare themselves for the good life brought by education and a good job. The fading American middle class will be reinforced, and hope will relieve much of the despair and resulting social pressures we now see in those places.

Employers will find job seekers who self-identify as being what a company needs: intelligent, motivated, and specifically educated for the job.

Selection for the program should be competitive and promoted early in high schools and community colleges. State employment bureaus should make it a part of their placement efforts. The program should be available to anyone who has proven themselves motivated to self-improvement through academic excellence.

This is not a new concept; it has existed for decades. Educating people in return for a commitment of their time has prominent precedent in the U.S. military academies and ROTC program. Governments in medically underserved areas have programs to pay for medical school in return for the new doctor practicing in the area after graduation. There is no reason to think that it would not be equally useful in broader application.

Colleges and organizations offer athletic scholarships to people who are, in fact, merely entertainers. As a nation, we should certainly offer equal opportunity to the intelligent among us.