03.11.13 3:30 PM ET
Let's Talk About the 'Guest Worker' Program
Immigration debates often proceed as if high wages for U.S. workers were a problem to be overcome, rather than a policy goal to be achieved. What else explains the survival of the J visa program?
Initiated as a cultural exchange, it has degenerated into a scheme by which employers import helots to serve hamburgers, gut fish, and pole dance at minimal pay - sometimes no pay at all. When you hear that we need "guest workers," keep in mind that the U.S. already accepts 100,000 guest workers a year.
My column for CNN details how that works out in practice.
When Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, he was unconscious of the then undeveloped capabilities of the word 'reform.'"
So quipped U.S. Sen. Roscoe Conkling of New York 130 years ago. The particular reform that irked Conkling was the then-novel proposal to eliminate patronage in federal civil service hiring.
Conkling lost his argument and lost his battle, but his quip endures -- and applies much more aptly to today's most discussed "reform": immigration reform.
"Immigration reform" is a deliberately ambiguous phrase, a phrase used equally by opposite sides in the immigration debate. Those who want amnesty for illegal immigrants call themselves "reformers." So do those who want stricter enforcement of the laws against illegal immigration.
But there's a third group to be heard, and these are the people who validate Conkling's cynical remark: the group of "reformers" who want to expand and enlarge guest worker programs.
The United States is entering its sixth year of extraordinarily high unemployment. Twelve million Americans who want work cannot find it. Millions more have quit searching. Slack labor markets have depressed wages throughout the economy.
Here's the picture that's worth a thousand words, from an economic commentary by Margaret Jacobson and Filippo Occhino for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
Whichever of the two competing data series you use, wages account for a substantially lower share of national income today than at any point since World War II, when record-keeping began.
Yet even these dismal findings understate the problem. Remember, "labor income" includes all salary income, including the salaries of the most highly paid, the famous 1%, who have enjoyed the benefit of almost all productivity gains since the 1990s. The wage situation of the typical worker looks even worse than the chart implies.
Whatever else you say about the U.S. economy of the 21st century, it cannot be described as suffering from labor shortages.
Yet however little workers earn, there is always somebody who wishes they earned even less. And for those somebodies, the solution is:
Import more cheap labor. But not just any cheap labor -- cheap labor that cannot quit, that cannot accept a better offer, that cannot complain.
Bonded labor is the oldest idea in American labor markets. In the 17th and 18th centuries, about half the British migrants to the United States arrived as indentured servants, people who agreed to work for a term of years in exchange for food, lodging, and the cost of their passage. Perhaps you assumed that such arrangements had expired centuries ago? Think again.
The March 8 Wall Street Journal tells the story of 14 foreign students who entered the United States on "J" class visas, which allow three months of work to support student study and travel.
"'Since I got to the States, I have been working just to pay to live in a basement,' says Mr. Rios, who arrived in mid-December and shares the one-room space with five other foreigners who work at the same outlet. He said he worked about 25 hours a week earning $7.25 an hour and Mr. Cheung, his boss, deducted weekly rent of $75 from his pay. ... Kah Inn Lee, a 23-year-old student from Malaysia, said a curtain separated the men's and women's beds in the tiny basement she shared with seven other students in a house owned by Mr. Cheung's son. Earning about $250 a week, she calculates she is in the red after paying for housing and food. To travel after completing her assignment at McDonald's, which ends this weekend, she has asked relatives to wire her money."
Stories like this are often told about the J-1 visa program, which brought about 109,000 students to the United States in 2011.
The Associated Press reported on the program last year: "In August 2011, dozens of workers protested conditions at a candy factory that contracts to pack Hershey chocolates in Hershey, Pa., complaining of hard physical labor and pay deductions for rent that often left them with little money. Then in December, a federal indictment accused the mafia of using the cultural exchange program to bring Eastern European women to work in New York strip clubs."