Help Wanted: Everywhere

Republicans and Democrats acknowledge the current shortage of legal, low-skilled labor. Is an expansion of temporary guest worker visas the solution?

guest farm worker on farm

Five Figures to Consider

8 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. workforce
4% U.S. unemployment rate January, 2019
1.5 million decline in number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S. from 2007 to 2016
$2.1 billion estimated additional tax revenue current undocumented immigrants would generate for state and local governments if given legal status
4.64 American jobs created for every H2-B visa issued

Border security and what to do about it cast a long shadow over President Trump’s State of the Union address this week. His Administration has been defined by efforts to curtail most immigration (both legal and illegal) into the United States. Meanwhile, more than a dozen longtime Latino employees at Trump golf clubs were recently fired because they were undocumented. Hiring undocumented immigrants is not a misdeed unique to the Trump Organization. But the experience does make the Trump Administration uniquely situated to sign on to a bipartisan visa reform effort.

Consider that about 8 million undocumented people are currently working in the U.S. on construction sites, in meat processing plants, as groundskeepers, housekeepers, farm workers, nursing home attendants and more. Some use fake documents to get hired, typically with false Social Security numbers and permanent residency cards. However, the overall number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is at its lowest level in more than a decade, according to the Pew Research Center. The decline is due almost entirely to a sharp decrease in the number of Mexicans entering the country without authorization. Today there are 1.5 million fewer undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S. than there were in 2007. One result: a low-skilled worker shortage. With an unemployment rate of 4% and a U.S. workforce in which more than 90% of 25 to 29-year-olds have obtained a high school diploma, employers can’t find enough workers for low-skilled jobs. Consider that 80% of general contractors report difficulty in finding hourly workers. In agriculture there are two jobs available for every new job seeker according to Successful Farming. Meanwhile aging baby boomers seeking care can’t find home health aides – a need that is expected to increase 41% by 2026.

To fill the gap, some businesses, including President Trump’s, seek to hire temporary guest workers who come to the U.S. on H2-B (non-agricultural) and H2-A (agricultural) visas, which allow foreigners to legally live and work inside the country for a set period. Most H2-A/B visa recipients, like most undocumented workers, come to the U.S. for employment in low-skilled occupations. They come because wages are often higher here than elsewhere. A typical farmworker in the U.S. earns about $10-$12 per hour, while the same worker in Mexico makes $2-$3 per hour. H2-B visas are capped at 66,000 per year (however in both 2017 and 2018 the Trump Administration expanded the program issuing an extra 15,000 H2-B visas.) H2-A visas while not capped, account for just 10% of the farming workforce due to long processing times and red tape. Family reunification remains the underpinning of U.S. immigration policy. (Almost 680,000 family-based permanent immigrant visas are issued annually, nearly double the number of work or skill-based visas.) Distributing so few temporary guest worker visas results in a higher flow of illegal immigrants who, if guest worker visas were available, would come to the U.S. legally. Look to the past and the Bracero Program to see this relationship. The program (while imperfect) allowed Mexicans to work temporarily on U.S. farms from the mid-1940s until 1964. While the program was in effect, illegal immigration and apprehensions from Mexico fell by 95%. After it ended in 1965, INS apprehensions rose 1,000% in ten years.

At the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention Zippy Duvall, its president, remarked, “We’re coming to a point where America will have to decide if we’re going to import workers or import our food.” Recently proposed legislation from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) would address that. The Agricultural Worker Program Act (H.R. 641) would allow experienced farmworkers who have worked in the U.S. for at least 100 days in the past two years to apply for a “blue card” granting them legal status to work in the U.S. for up to eight years. The card does not tie them to a single farmer and allows them to travel outside and return to the United States. If they continue to work in agriculture for at least 100 days over the next five years they would also be eligible to apply for a green card. It is designed to ease agricultural worker shortages and protect undocumented workers already in the United States from deportation and exploitation. The card, however, does not allow new low-skilled legal immigrants to be brought into the U.S.

For that look to the State Sponsored Visa Pilot Program Act, introduced by Republican Senator Ron Johnson (WI) in 2017 and currently stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, it addresses illegal immigration and labor shortages by creating a state-based guest worker program for immigrants. To start, 5,000 visas would be allocated to each state with an additional 250,000 visas available in a pool for states to draw from as needed. Costs to federal government? Zero. More legal workers equals more tax revenue. Managing the flow and legal status of low-skilled workers through participation in a state managed guest worker program would increase their state and local tax contributions by an estimated $2.1 billion a year and decrease the associated costs to taxpayers of apprehensions and deportment by at least $3.2 billion annually. Additionally, a study by New American Economy (a group of business leaders and mayors) found that for every H2-B visa issued 4.64 jobs for American workers were created.  



Association of General Contractors, Brookings Institute, Bureau of Labor Statistics,, Cato Institute, National Center for Education Statistics,, Pew Research, National Foundation for American Policy, The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, United States Citizen and Immigration Services