What Is a Guest-Worker Program?

The History of Guest Workers in the U.S.

Guest workers with the Bracero Program eating lunch on the side of the road in 1963
Guest workers with the Bracero Program eat lunch on the side of a road between fields in 1963, a year before the controversial program was terminated.

Bettmann / Getty Images

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

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

The Basics 

A guest worker must return to his homeland after the term of their temporary commitment has expired. Technically, thousands of U.S. non-immigrant visa holders are guest workers. The government gave out 55,384 H-2A visas to temporary agriculture workers in 2011, which helped U.S. farmers deal with seasonal demands that year. 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 of 66,000 H2B visas to foreign workers in seasonal, non-agricultural jobs.

The Bracero Program Controversy 

Perhaps the most controversial U.S. guest-worker initiative was the Bracero Program that ran from 1942 through 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 labor shortages in the U.S. during World War II.

The program was poorly run and poorly regulated. Workers were often exploited and forced to endure shameful conditions. Many simply abandoned the program, migrating to the cities to become part of the first wave of post-war immigration.

The abuses of Braceros provided 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.

Guest-Worker Plans in Comprehensive Reform Bills

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 to creating an under-class of servile workers, tantamount to legalized enslavement. In general, guest-worker programs aren't meant for highly skilled workers or for those with advanced college degrees.

But despite past problems, the expanded use of guest workers was a key aspect of the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that Congress considered for much of the last decade. The idea was to give U.S. businesses a steady, reliable stream of temporary labor in exchange for tighter border controls to keep undocumented 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 their resistance waned when faced with President Barack Obama’s strong desire to get a comprehensive reform bill passed in his second term. President Donald Trump has said that he wants to limit foreign workers. 

The National Guestworker Alliance 

The National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) is a New Orleans-based membership group for guest workers. Its goal is to organize workers across the country and to 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.”

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Moffett, Dan. "What Is a Guest-Worker Program?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-guest-worker-program-1951456. Moffett, Dan. (2021, February 16). What Is a Guest-Worker Program? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-guest-worker-program-1951456 Moffett, Dan. "What Is a Guest-Worker Program?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-guest-worker-program-1951456 (accessed June 7, 2023).