Temporary worker progrms: not so temporary after all

In its final report to the Congress and the President in March of this year, the select commission on immigration and refugee policy unanimously rejected a proposal to establish a large-scale temporary worker program as a means of combatting illegal migration to the United States. Despite the commission's recommendation, however, it appears that the Reagan administration is considering a guest-worker program with Mexico which would enable large numbers of Mexican laborers to work in the United States for limited periods of time.

Proponents of a Mexico-US guest-worker program argue that it would serve as an effective means of reducing illegal Mexican migration and, in particular, the number of illegal migrants who opt to remain in the US on a long-term or permanent basis. Yet there is little evidence to support such claims. In fact, the information which is available on previous temporary worker programs, both in the United States and Western Europe, indicates the opposite to be true. Namely, that such prgrams tend to cause increased migration over time.

In Western Europe, for example, countries such as West Germany, France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom imported over 30 million guest workers from the poorer countries of the Mediterranean between 1960 and 1975 in order to fill temporary labor shortages in certain industries. However, when guest-worker immigration was abruptly halted by many of these nations in the mid-1970s owing to economic recession and growing pressure from organized labor, most of the 6.7 million guest workers who were then employed in Western Europe did not return home as was anticipated.

Instead, large numbers opted to remain in their host countries for fear of being denied reentry, and then began sending for wives and children. As a result, the latter half of the 1970s were characterized by the accelerated growth of foreign populations in Western Europe. Although many former labor importing countries have attempted to encourage the return of as many guest workers as possible, efforts to do so have proved largely unsuccessful, and these nations are now beginning to pay the long-term economic and social costs involved in educating and caring for a second generation.

The United States has had a similar experience with a temporary labor program. In 1942, as a result of severe labor shortages caused by the second world war, an intergovernmental agreement known as the bracero program was concluded between the U.S. and Mexico which arranged for the importation of Mexican laborers into the United States for periods not to exceed six months. Although planned originally as a temporary wartime measure, the bracero program was extended and expanded year after year until, by the program's end in 1964, over 4 million Mexican workers had been involved.

Having grown accustomed to the higher wages and improved living standards made possible by US wage labor, many braceros continued to return to the United States after the program was terminated -- legally if possible, but if not legally, then as undocumented migrants. Legal migration more than double from 32,000 in 1960 to 71,000 in 1974 as wives and children of former braceros began soliciting resident visas under the family reunification provisions of US immigration law. More significant, however, the number of apprehensions for illegal entry increased from roughly 30,000 per year to 710,000 during the same period, and rose to over 817,000 by 1980.

In a very basic sense, therefore, the phenomenal growth in illegal migration to the United States over the past 15 years represents an unintended result of the bracero program. At present, there is growing evidence to indicate that many former braceros and their families are beginning to settle permanently in the United States, either as legal residents or as undocumented migrants. Like Europe, the United States is now beginning to realize the long-term costs of previous policies and must now face the problem of integrating increasing numbers of migrants and their children into US society.

Thus, while it may be necessary to establish a temporary labor program as part of any effort to bring the current flow of illegal migrants under some kind of control, it is important to bear in mind that such a move is an inherently short-term solution to a long-term problem and, by itself, cannot be expected to appreciably improve the situation. In fact, it may well serve to aggravate it. For if there is one lesson to be learned from previous guest- worker experiments it is that, in the long run there is no such thing as a "temporary" labor program. Once such programs have been initiated, it is clearly in the interest of migrants to return to work regularly and often, and, if the right to come and go is threatened, it is also in their interest to remain in the host country by whatever means possible.

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