What Is a Guest-Worker Program?

Question: What Is a Guest-Worker Program?


The United States has more than a half-century’s experience in dealing with guest-worker programs, dating back to the World War II-era Bracero Program that allowed Mexican laborers to come here and work on the nation’s farms and railroads. 

Some candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign, Republicans in particular, have supported allowing guest workers as an alternative to bringing immigrant workers into the country on extended visas.

Simply put, a guest-worker program allows a foreign worker to enter the country for a specified period of time and fill a specific job. Industries with surges in labor needs such as agriculture and tourism often have hired guest workers to fill seasonal positions.

After the term of the temporary commitment has expired, the worker must return to his or her homeland. Technically, thousands of U.S. non-immigrant visa holders are guest-workers. In the last year, the government gave out 55,384 H-2A visas to temporary agriculture workers which helped U.S. farmers deal with seasonal demands. Another 129,000 H-1B visas went out to workers in “specialty occupations” such as engineering, math, architecture, medicine and health. The government also gives out a maximum 66,000 H2B visas to foreign workers in seasonal, non-agricultural jobs.

Perhaps the most controversial U.S. guest-worker initiative was the Bracero Program that ran from 1942 to 1964.

Drawing its name from the Spanish word for “strong-arm,” the Bracero Program brought millions of Mexican workers into the country to compensate for the labor shortages during World War II.

The program was poorly run and poorly regulated. Workers were often exploited and forced endure shameful conditions.

Many simply abandoned the program, migrated to the cities and became part of the first wave of post-war illegal immigration.

The abuses of Braceros were inspiration for a number of folk artists and protest singers during the period, including Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs. Mexican-American labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez started his historic movement for reform in response to the abuses suffered by the Braceros.

Critics of guest-worker programs argue that it’s virtually impossible to run them without widespread worker abuses. They contend that the programs are inherently given to exploitation and creating an under-class of servile workers, tantamount to legalized slavery. In general, guest worker programs aren't meant for highly skilled workers or those with advanced college degrees.

Guest-Worker Plans in Comprehensive Reform Bills

Despite past problems, an expanded use of guest-workers is a key part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that Congress has considered for much of the last decade. The idea is to give U.S. businesses a steady, reliable stream of temporary labor in exchange for tighter border controls to keep illegal immigrants out.

The Republican National Committee’s 2012 platform called for creating guest-worker programs to satisfy the needs of U.S. businesses.

President George W. Bush made the same proposal in 2004.

Democrats have been reluctant to endorse the programs because of the past abuses. But the resistance has waned against President Obama’s strong desire to get a comprehensive reform bill passed in his second term.

The National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) is a New Orleans-based membership group for guest-workers that tries to organize workers across the country and prevent exploitation. According the NGA, the group seeks to “partner with local workers -- employed and unemployed -- to strengthen U.S. social movements for racial and economic justice.”