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Guestworkers: Hard To Turn Off Flow

Author: Jagdish N. Bhagwati
February 25, 2013


NEW YORK: Immigration reform as proposed in the United States consists of enacting policies that provide inducements and punishments to dent significantly, even eliminate, fresh inflows of undocumented, or illegal, immigrants, who are overwhelmingly unskilled, and thus reduce their existing stock of 11 million.

There are serious reasons to doubt that amnesty will work better than in 1986, under the Immigration and Reform and Control Act, when only half of 6 million undocumented workers took advantage of that program. Proposals emerging separately from a bipartisan group of eight senators and President Barack Obama, as relayed in his State of the Union address as well as calculated leaks, suggest that a guestworker program will be included as a way of eliminating the fresh inflows of illegal immigrants. But that too will not succeed.

Proponents contend that the guestworker program will have two favorable consequences for illegal immigration: First, the guests would be "temporary," the idea being that one could turn the program off and even return the workers to Mexico and other homelands. Yet, expectations among the workers and likely even their employers, co-workers and communities are that attachments will form and the temporary workers will tend to become permanent. Second, regardless, the political leaders assume that the guestworkers will reduce, perhaps even eliminate, the illegal inflows. Both scenarios are implausible and almost certain to fail.

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