Behind the Immigration Crisis:  No Visas for Unskilled Workers

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The current high-pitched ideological battle over undocumented immigration at the US-Mexico border overlooks a deeper problem: the failure of the legal immigration system to provide enough visas for the large number of unskilled workers seeking jobs in the low-skill sectors of the US economy.  The jobs are clearly there, which is why so many workers are coming;  the question is:  why aren’t there enough visas for them?

The short answer is:  Because the legal immigration system tends to favor high-skilled workers in IT and engineering fields.  There is a plethora of visa programs available to accommodate these workers – either as full-time employees or as contract workers.  About 100,000 so-called “employment” visas (categories E1, E2 and E3) are available for the former category, but far more are available for those coming as temporary contract workers.  In fact, high-technology industries are aggressively recruiting these latter workers through a veritable alphabet soup of visa programs, including H-1B, O-1 and others – for a preliminary 3-year period that is easily renewable – and often, over time, leads to permanent residency or a “green card.”

But unskilled and semi-skilled workers – while badly needed in industries ranging from construction to landscaping to food service and family care – don’t have that option.  The legal immigration system offers them just 5,000 visas annually. So, with intense demand in the labor market, especially post-pandemic, and with a nod and a wink from many employers, they come anyway, hoping to gain entry, by hook or by crook.

And under Biden, unlike under his former boss, Barack Obama, they’ve been all but waived in – in record numbers. It’s become a huge problem for Democrats and left unchecked, could even cost Biden the election.

This visa issue has been debated for years – and was supposed to have been addressed during past immigration reform debates – and in some of the proposed legislation. that has nearly passed the US Congress – most notably, in 2007, under George W. Bush and again, in 2012, under Obama.  But the bills – and the carefully crafted compromises they reflect – never made it to the president’s desk, because one or both houses of Congress tend to nix them.

Democrats typically blame the Republicans and “nativism” for these breakdowns.  But the fact is, antipathy exists on both sides of the aisle toward bringing large numbers of unskilled into the US on a temporary contract basis – as basically. “guest” workers.  In theory, our immigration system could treat these workers the same way we treat the skilled ones – with 3-year renewable contracts without guaranteed residency rights. But both sides of the debate, for different reasons, object to the idea.

For those on the left, it’s because they view guest workers as a throwback to the Mexican “bracero” program that brought hundreds of thousands of farmworkers to the US after World War II.  Despite a treaty agreement between the two nations, which supposedly guaranteed limited labor rights,  a large number of these braceros were ruthlessly exploited by their employers with harsh working conditions and low wages – and indeed, quite a few never even received their meager wages, as promised.

For the left, a “modern” guest worker program is just Bracero 2.0 – inherently exploitative, leaving workers captive to a single employer, without a path to residency and without political rights of any kind.

The right, on the other hand, thinks guest workers are just illegal workers in disguise.  They suspect that many will come and then refuse to leave once their contracts expire.  In practice, their departure won’t be enforced, just as it isn’t with hundreds of thousands of visa “overstayers” – those that come on legal visas, usually as tourists, and then refuse to go home each year.  In fact, about half of the “illegal” immigrants in the US today are visa overstayers, not people who crossed the US-Mexico border illegally.

So, for the right, unless some closely monitored enforcement is in place, a large share of guest workers might not leave, either, or will find a way to bleed out of the program, undetected.  We’ll just get another illegal immigration invasion, they fear.

This is largely hysteria.  In fact, there are already a number of smaller unskilled “guest” workers programs in place; they’re small and strictly seasonal, and workers do return home as expected.  The two most prominent programs – H-2A and H-2B – bring in about 25,000-40,000 workers annually as fruit and vegetable pickers, fishermen and tourist workers; there’s also the program, billed as a STEM student travel program that is also a disguised guest worker program; thousands more come in through this program, to work for about 10 months maximum; as contract workers, they’re also supposed to leave, and they do, in fact.

So, the right’s argument about temporary workers becoming illegal ones through non-enforcement is indeed highly exaggerated, but it’s also true that these programs are small and tend to be temporally limited and geographically concentrated, so managing them is fairly easy – far easier than a large-scale program might be.

But for the left, major objections to these programs, even the current smaller ones, remain.  Labor rights advocates have fought agricultural employers tooth-and-nail for years to ensure that H-2A workers get paid a decent wage – and are provided housing and other amenities.  Uneasy compromises have been worked out.  There’s also the issue of whether these programs depress wages for the larger labor market for native-born workers; the evidence suggests that they probably do, one reason, historically labor unions have opposed these smaller guest worker programs as well as proposals to set up one that might give a much larger number of workers coming illegally a temporary visa to stay and work.

Despite these recurring policy battles, there have been efforts to figure out a way for a guest worker program to become both less exploitative – and more enforceable – to satisfy possible objections on the left and right.

For example, guest workers might not be required to work for just one employer but could move from one to the next and be free to offer their services to the highest bidder; in effect, that would give them bargaining leverage.  On the other hand, through strict registration with their consulates, they might be carefully tracked and their movements monitored to ensure that they comply with requirements to leave after their last contract had expired.  And withholding a percentage of their wages until they do indeed return, has long been a feature of these programs.

To further sweeten the deal, however, these same workers might also be allowed to renew their visa, automatically, to extend their stay for another three years, just as skilled workers do.  In effect, we’d be harmonizing our treatment of all temporary contract workers, regardless of their skill level.

Progressive immigration advocates – and most Democrats – still don’t like the sound of this proposed “Z visa” program.  Why?  Because it’s not a ticket to permanent residency,  and eventual citizenship and the right to vote – and to vote for Democrats, presumably.  So, it may not have the long-term political benefit that Democrats hope to achieve with it.  But here’s the rub:  many undocumented immigrants, who currently must huddle in the shadows, living in constant fear of arrest and deportation, to say nothing of those stranded at the border, and left to anguish in detention, without work, very well might support the program – wholeheartedly – and in fact, there’s anecdotal evidence that they do – or would – if they actually had a voice in the matter.

It’s long overdue that both sides give them this voice.  While both sides are loath to admit it, the guest worker issue – not the more high-pitched debate over border security, or interior enforcement – has largely been responsible for sabotaging comprehensive immigration reform to date.  It’s the elephant in the room that everyone pretends doesn’t exist, when it could very well solve the entire controversy, if only the two sides could set aside some of their deeply held ideological beliefs and deal in a more practical way with the visa, labor rights and enforcement issues at stake.

The right needs to overcome its nativist opposition to more foreign born workers generally while the left needs to stop insisting that all temporary workers should be guaranteed – up front – permanent residency and a path to citizenship.  That doesn’t happen with skilled workers and there’s no inherent reason it should happen with the unskilled ones.  Right now, because neither side has the political will – and courage – to address these issues, without prejudice, the debate has become stuck on enforcement alone – and border enforcement, specially – because it’s an easier “sell.”

Trump’s “wall” – it actually long predates him, and the original funding for it was passed with bipartisan support back in 2006  – has become a powerful but thoroughly exaggerated  symbol of either “national security” or “xenophobia.”  It’s a vicious circle”  When the right continues to push enforcement at all costs, the left increasingly demands an open border.  But immigration is not fundamentally a police problem or even a civil rights issue.  All countries work to control their borders, and many countries in Europe and the Middle East, especially, have foreign guest worker programs in place to allow badly needed laborers into the country legally without necessarily insisting that native-born citizens shoulder an unlimit burden for them.  In the end, it’s a question of policy balance:  how to fulfill the interests of businesses and workers, governments and citizens, as fairly and humanely as possible.

It sounds commonsensical, doesn’t it?  It is, in fact, but without more thoughtful and creative leadership on both sides of the aisle, we may never actually get there.

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at