Trump’s Guest Worker Ban Sparks New Focus on Immigrant Push for Labor Overhaul

President Trump’s decision to suspend the majority of U.S. guest worker programs for at least six months, announced in a June 22 proclamation, has provoked a lot of debate.

For Mark Krikorian, who heads the immigration-restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, the suspension is “a bold move … to protect American jobs,” while South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham warns it will have “a chilling effect on our economic recovery.” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gives Trump’s order qualified support; corporation heads like Elon Musk oppose it. But this debate misses the point.

In reality the new suspension is unlikely to have any major impact on U.S. jobs or the overall economy, although it will definitely disrupt the lives of thousands of foreign workers and their families. If anything, the move looks like an election-year appeal to xenophobes in Trump’s base, one that fails to address any real concerns about guest worker programs and disguises the administration’s strong support for most of these programs.

Still, the new focus on the issue may provide an important opportunity: Activists for immigrant and labor rights can use it to bring attention to proposals for a radical overhaul of the entire guest worker system.

The Actual Impact

The June 22 suspension affects a relatively small number of jobs. According to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute, it will bar some 124,000 guest workers during the rest of the year: 29,000 technical and specialty workers in the H-1B visa program, 23,000 nonagricultural seasonal workers in the H-2B program and 72,000 youths in the J-1 program. (Another 43,000 people are also excluded; these are dependents, along with executives and managers in the L-1 intracompany tranferee program.)

But this is based on statistics from fiscal year 2019, and the researchers note that their estimates “do not reflect changes occurring as a result of suspension of visa processing during the pandemic or changed economic circumstances.” The numbers will clearly be much lower this year, even assuming that potential guest workers wouldn’t be reluctant to come to a country that remains the world’s COVID-19 epicenter.

Visa processing has slowed down abroad because the pandemic has largely closed U.S. consular services, and the outbreak has also dried up many of the seasonal jobs the H-2B and J-1 workers would normally be taking. Some 40 percent of H-2B jobs are in landscaping, mostly for corporations, resorts and golf courses; the rest are generally in hospitality jobs at hotels, restaurants and amusement parks. Most of the young workers in the J-1 visa program end up in the Summer Work Travel program’s hospitality jobs. These are all sectors that have been hit especially hard by the pandemic and the recession.

So is Trump just throwing a bone to his base by taking credit for enforcing what was happening anyway? There’s certainly no evidence that Trump wants to keep guest workers out of the country. Over the last three years, his administration has stepped up the H-2A visa program, which brings in some 200,000 seasonal agricultural workers each year; this program is exempted from the suspension. Trump himself has regularly employed workers through the H-1B and H-2B programs, and as late as early March, the White House was planning to raise the cap on H-2B visas.

Despite his rhetoric, Trump agrees with the rest of the U.S. political class on this issue. The corporations and wealthy individuals that dominate U.S. politics value guest workers as a reliable source of inexpensive, easily exploited labor.

Disposable Workers

The very reasons that employers support guest worker programs are why labor rights advocates oppose them.

On paper, the government offers protections for labor rights, but enforcement is lax. In addition, the workers are tied to the employers who sponsored them; they can’t legally look for better jobs, and if they’re fired, they lose their visas and are shipped out. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described the H-2A and H-2B programs as “close to slavery.” The J-1 program, supposedly a cultural exchange experience for students, is similarly exploitative, according to a report last year from the Economic Policy Institute. The skilled workers of the H-1B program are paid more than H-2A, H-2B and J-1 workers, but they still get less than the local median wage for their occupations.

The programs also help corporations and the wealthy avoid sharing social resources with working people. Most guest workers, except for those with H-1B visas, are required to leave after their seasonal jobs. “They have to go out,” as Trump put it at an April 2018 rally, so there’s no risk that these workers will be staying and getting access to government health care and social services.

This makes them the ideal workers: They can be exploited for a period of time and then disposed of once enough labor has been extracted from them, to be replaced with a new crop of workers through the same programs.

Guest worker programs have another benefit for employers. While these programs don’t tend to reduce the number of jobs available for U.S. citizens, the low wages and abysmal working conditions that are structured into them do put downward pressure on wages, benefits and labor conditions for all workers in the same occupations and industries.

The Alternatives

Most media coverage has treated the issue as a choice between bringing guest workers in and keeping them out. But there are better options.

Earlier this year the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, an organization that supports Mexico-based migrant workers defending their rights, issued a report with specific recommendations for reforming the H-2A program, including legislation to govern the recruitment of guest workers and a requirement for the Department of Labor to enforce employer compliance with federal wage provisions.

Reforms like these would also provide “a groundwork for broader value-based changes,” the group’s spokesperson, María Penales Sánchez, told Truthout, such as the right for guest workers to change employers, the right to bring immediate family members with them, a pathway to citizenship, and access to health care and Social Security benefits.

Similar demands appear in the immigration plan from Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign and the “Proposal for an Alternative Model for Labor Migration” from Migration That Works, a coalition that includes the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante and a range of unions, worker centers, nonprofits and labor experts.

The Migrant Justice Platform, released by a commission of immigration activists and experts last November, adds a requirement for the United States to recognize Transnational Labor Citizenship, an approach that enables guest workers “to join collective worker organizations in both their home countries and the countries where they work.” Fordham Law Professor Jennifer Gordon describes such an arrangement as “a sort of transnational union.”

Starting the Conversation

In November Erika Andiola, advocacy director at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) and chair of the Migrant Justice Platform’s commission, described the group’s proposals as “the beginning of a much-needed policy conversation.”

We could take the conversation further by recognizing the right of all people throughout the world to live and work where they choose, just as we recognize the rights of people within our national borders to move between states and cities without restriction. To extend that right globally, we would need to uphold the right to stay home, too — which includes respecting Indigenous rights to land, territory and autonomy.

Even mild reforms to migrant labor policies may have sounded utopian just a few months ago, but a lot has happened since then: Amid health and economic catastrophes we are seeing massive Black-led, multiracial Black Lives Matter demonstrations sweep the nation with a flood of support for abolitionist demands to defund and dismantle the police and other institutions that reinforce systemic racism. Now is the time to push for transformative change.