Guestworker Programs Remain Open to Countries with High Overstay Rates

By Jessica M. Vaughan and Preston Huennekens on January 25, 2019

Our colleague David North has reported the good news that three countries have been booted from the annual list of countries whose citizens are eligible to participate in the H-2 guestworker visa programs, due to high overstay rates. But the list still includes many other countries with high rates of non-compliance and overstays that should disqualify them, or at least result in some kind of probationary status or require enhanced screening. The number of participating countries now stands at 80, which is slightly down from the peak of 85 in 2017, but still much higher than 2008, when only 28 countries were eligible (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Number of Countries Eligible for H-2 Programs

The H-2 visas allow employers to sponsor seasonal agricultural workers (H-2A) and seasonal or temporary non-agricultural workers (H-2B). The three countries disqualified from the program are the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. That is a wise move, considering the poor visa compliance rates of citizens from these countries.

But these countries are not the only ones with concerning overstay rates. We compared the new list of eligible countries with the 2018 DHS report on overstays and found that there are 14 other countries on the H-2 visa eligibility list with very high overstay rates of 10 percent or more in at least one temporary visa category, including work visas, student and exchange visas, and short-term visitors. Table 1 provides a list of the countries with the overstay rates reported by DHS that were calculated either for short-term visitors, students and exchange visitors, or other categories, including guestworkers.

Table 1. Participating Countries with High Work Visa Overstays (10% or more)

Country Rate  
Timor-Leste 100% *
Solomon Islands 30%  
Vanuatu 25%  
Tonga 24%  
Moldova 22% *
Brunei 19% *
Guatemala 16% *
Madagascar 16% *
Mongolia 13%  
Kiribati 11%  
Serbia 10%  
El Salvador 10% *
Honduras 10% *
Thailand 10% *

* These countries have high overstay rates in the category that is primarily work visa holders (as opposed to student and short-term visitors, which have overstay rates calculated separately).

We cannot think of a good reason to allow these countries to participate in the program, given their record of non-compliance. Some of the countries with very high overstay rates, like Vanuatu and Madagascar, are quite small and do not send a large number of people, but others, like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are larger and, more significantly, already have large numbers of their citizens arriving illegally or overstaying in all of the categories.

In addition, we identified 19 other countries with overstay rates of concern that were between 3 percent and 10 percent. We chose 3 percent as the lowest threshold of concern because it is more than double the worldwide average total overstay rate of 1.33 percent.

Again, some of these countries are small, but others could (and already do) produce significant numbers of overstays, such as Jamaica, Ukraine, Brazil, and Ecuador. If these countries are permitted to stay in the H-2 program, the individual applicants should be subjected to additional scrutiny to try to improve the overstay rates, and employers should have to undergo additional compliance levels as well.

Figure 2. Participating Countries with High Visa Overstay Rates (3-10%)

Country Rate  
Papua New Guinea 9%  
Nauru 8%  
Nicaragua 7% *
Peru 7% *
Grenada 6% *
Macedonia 5% *
Monetenegro 4% *
Ukraine 4% *
South Africa 4%  
Ecuador 4% *
Barbados 4%  
Fiji 3% *
Jamaica 3% *
St. Vincent & Grenadines 3% *
Brazil 3%  
Brunei 3% *
Bulgaria 3%  
Colombia 3%  
Romania 3% *

* These countries have high overstay rates in the category that is primarily work visa holders (as opposed to student and short-term visitors, which have overstay rates calculated separately).

The H-2 guestworker programs deprive U.S. workers of job opportunities and add to the population of illegal workers here. Our country does not have a shortage of laborers to do these jobs, but If the programs are to be continued at all to assuage the employer lobby, the following reforms should be made:

  • Employers sponsoring guestworkers should also be required to use E-Verify;
  • A tracking database similar to that used for foreign students and exchange visitors should be established;
  • Workers should be required to exit the country through designated ports of exit and record their departure, such as by using one of the kiosks tested recently by CBP, which collect biometrics;
  • Participating workers should be required to waive their right to a deportation hearing if found to overstay without good reason, as Visa Waiver Program visitors must do;
  • CBP should be required to report annually on program overstays;
  • DHS should set thresholds of compliance that will result in consequences for high rates of overstays, including being barred from participation and/or enhanced screening of visa applicants by the State Department; and
  • Employers and labor/visa brokers whose clients employ overstaying workers should be sanctioned and/or barred from petitioning for workers or assisting in petitioning for workers.