Slave Trade: Permitting guest workers sounds like the perfect solution to the immigration imbroglio. Look again.

By Mark Krikorian on September 14, 1998

National Review, September 14, 1998

A bill to substantially increase the number of foreign high-tech workers admitted under temporary visas has stumbled in Congress, mainly because of divisions among Republicans and a strong veto threat from the White House. The House leadership postponed until after the August recess a vote on the bill to increase the number of "H-1B" visas for computer programmers and other skilled workers by almost 200,000 over five years, from the current 65,000 a year to 115,000 by 2002. And the bill may simply fade away because, in the words of one House Republican staffer, "How many people want to vote for 190,000 new foreign workers two months before an election?"

But even if it doesn't become law this year, the implicit model of immigration it embodies will be with us for some time. Under this new dispensation, "nonimmigrants" (the technical term for those on temporary visas) are admitted for long periods of time to work for specific employers, without the ability to change the terms of employment or switch employers. Though most of today's immigrants are able to participate freely in the labor market, the number of captive foreign workers has been growing steadily. In 1981, only 44,770 temporary workers and trainees were admitted to the United States; by 1990, the number had grown to 139,587, and by 1996, 227,440. The total number of such workers present at any one time is in the hundreds of thousands (both in the visa categories mentioned above and in others), and proposals like the H-1B bill would increase that number dramatically.

The model that has governed our law for more than a hundred years treated immigrants as free workers, able to compete in the labor market. This free-worker model of immigration was formally articulated in the Contract Labor Law of 1885, which prohibited the importation of aliens under contract for the performance of labor or services of any kind. This was a reaction to the importation of "coolie" labor from China, a practice which itself succeeded the institution of indentured servitude. And it was a recognition that the freedom of workers to negotiate wages and working conditions and to change jobs is essential to capitalism-just as indentured servitude was a manifestation of pre-capitalist labor relations, like vassalage or serfdom.

Today's emerging immigration model harks back to those pre-modern arrangements. Like their predecessors, today's captive workers come voluntarily, for the chance of earning more money or settling permanently, but they can't strike, can't switch jobs, can't even complain. Some critics compare this captive-worker model to slavery, but actually, for employers, it's much better than slavery: they don't have to make huge capital investments in purchasing workers, nor do they have to feed and clothe the guest workers, nor support them in their old age. Employers enjoy the benefits of a manorial relationship without the costs.

The bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform was unequivocal in its opposition to the captive-worker model of immigration. Commenting on farm workers, but with an eye toward all nonimmigrant worker programs, the Commission wrote that it "unanimously and strongly agrees that such a program would be a grievous mistake. . . . Experience has shown that such limitations are incompatible with the values of democratic societies worldwide."

Today's emerging captive-worker model of immigration has three components.

  1. High-tech Braceros: The H-1B visa program was invented in 1990 because of congressional panic over a labor shortage which never materialized. The program allows for 65,000 temporary visas, good for up to six years, for people in "specialty occupations" tied to a specific employer. The captive nature of this labor force doesn't start with the H-1B visa. Many of the workers arrive on student visas, then extend them for one year to get "practical training" (tied to an employer). Only then do they get H-1B visas.

    Getting assigned to a different employer is difficult; and since the main payoff of an H-1B visa is sponsorship by one's employer for a green card, the worker doesn't want to have to start the sponsorship process over by switching jobs, possibly dragging things out so long that the temporary visa expires first. Once the immigrant acquires a green card, he's free to work anywhere he wants, but his period of indenture is long enough for his employer to profit handsomely from the arrangement.

    So it's no surprise that high-tech companies are pushing for an increase in these visas. They could instead have sought the reallocation of some family-based green cards to the employment-based categories. John O'Sullivan suggested that policy in these pages ("Silicon Implants," June 1), and business could almost certainly get Congress to approve it. But computer firms want to prevent job-hopping, and simply increasing the number of immigrant programmers won't do that.

  2. Keeping Them on the Farm: During every Congress, the indefatigable advocates for agribusiness float proposals for new agricultural guest-worker programs, contending that the existing H-2A program allows too few temporary farm workers to enter the country (the figure is around 20,000 per year). In July, these advocates finally got the Senate to approve a new program with neither numerical limits nor worker protections.

    Farmers perennially claim that if they did not have either illegal aliens or captive guest workers, crops would rot in the fields and American agriculture would implode. Guest-worker programs thus become the only honorable means of producing food. But most agricultural economists agree that American agriculture could survive, indeed thrive, without either illegal workers or captive guest workers. While some marginal producers would go under, the industry as a whole would adapt and become stronger, as the smaller labor force became more stable (because of better pay and benefits) and more productive (through more efficient use of labor and more extensive mechanization). In any case, labor costs account for a very small portion of the retail price of produce.

  3. Kuwait in the Pacific: The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) offers the most sobering look at the development of the captive-worker model of immigration. The United States granted commonwealth status to the islands in 1986, part of the deal being that the CNMI would control immigration in order to protect the native culture.

    Instead, the local administration has used this authority to import a turnkey garment industry staffed entirely by guest workers. These Chinese, Filipinos, and others now number 35,000, compared to only 25,000 U.S. citizens. The captive workers are subjected to all the indignities one would expect, including withholding of pay, sexual exploitation, coerced abortions-the Chinese are even prohibited by their contracts from going to church. The natives, meanwhile, are almost entirely employed by the government or on welfare. Foreigners account for more than 90 per cent of the private-sector workforce. The only comparable examples in the world are Persian Gulf dictatorships like Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

    Many Republican congressmen have resisted a Clinton Administration initiative to extend U.S. immigration and labor laws to the islands. This would make sense if a conservative alternative, like independence, were also on the table. But many conservative lawmakers, staffers, and journalists have touted the islands as a "phenomenal economic success" and an "experimental laboratory of liberty," as if the CNMI were Hong Kong with coconut trees instead of Kuwait without oil.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose mass immigration of any kind. But even if there were a need for foreign workers, importing indentured servants would not be the way to do it. Proponents of captive-worker immigration forget the first principle of a free society: all of us, including immigrants, are human beings, created in the image of God, not mere factors of production to be used and discarded. (After the failure of Germany's guest-worker program, one writer lamented, "We asked for workers, but they sent us men.")

Conservatives cannot applaud the emerging consensus among GOP lawmakers: pro-immigration, anti-immigrant.