Is a Guest Worker Program Like Slavery?

Like the editors of the New Republic seem to think? The Center for Global Development's Michael Clemens cooly annihilates the vile comparison.

I take a breath and count to ten. First, and emphatically, we must set the brutal, coercive slave trade completely and irrevocably apart from Chinese and Mexican immigration, which has been almost universally voluntary. Forcing Africans to come to this country and work for nothing was indeed far beyond unsavory and it did reflect, in its time, the worst instincts of this country. A colossal difference lies between this and the braceros' decision to come here and work for pay. Slaves were indeed “imported” as subhuman commodities. Mexicans and Chinese chose to come. And allowing people to voluntarily pursue their dreams is not something for which we should hang our heads in shame.

Now: What is the alternative to admitting Chinese and Mexicans to do “difficult” work here in a “shadowy” underclass? The alternative was not mass admission of unskilled labor with full citizenship, which would have been politically impossible and continues to be. For most of them, the alternative was not to come at all, and the temporary worker provision of the Immigration Act embodies a sophisticated understanding of this fact. If the US had not admitted Chinese and Mexicans in the past, those people would have remained where they were: doing far more difficult work in a sub-sub-underclass in the places they came from — not just shadowy, but completely invisible to Americans. How do we know it was that bad where they were before? Because despite the enormous hardships of coming here, both groups kept on choosing to come, for many decades. Immigrants, bluntly, are not stupid; they know what makes them better off, and they act on it.
The failure of the Immigration Reform Act means no temporary worker program, so fewer people will have that chance for a better life. The way the editors of the New Republic excoriate that provision of the bill, you'd think the bill's collapse is a victory in the fight against poverty.

Michael is an incredibly smart guy who really knows what he's talking about. Please read the rest.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center