Published January 25, 2013
As the country's leaders gear up once again to overhaul the immigration system, a heated debate is expected on the revamping of a guest worker program allowing future temporary immigrants to come legally.
Politicians will take up various versions. Some say all they need to do is look north for an ideal model.
Canada has had a guest worker program with Mexico since 1974. Though it’s not without critics, it’s generally hailed as well organized and worthy of being replicated.
The process starts with Mexico screening potential workers on their education, health and skills. To ensure that they don’t overstay their employment visa, the Canadian government takes out part of the workers’ pay and puts it into a special fund — workers get the money when they return to Mexico.
Canada also requires that approximately 16,000 yearly recruits be married — but only they, not their spouses and children, can travel to Canada.
On some level, say those in industries that use foreign labor, Canada’s program should not be difficult to duplicate in the United States. But an important hurdle to its smooth implementation, they say, is the bitterly divisive nature of the ever-thorny immigration debate — it has become so politicized that there’s little to no room for compromise.
“It wouldn’t be hard to replicate from a policy standpoint, but Canada hasn’t had the same divisive labor politics around the issue,” said Craig Regelbrugge, spokesman for the American Nursery and Landscape Association. “It’s pretty much a settled matter in Canada that the program is needed.”
Groups that favor restrictive immigration policies have typically resisted the idea of guest workers, saying that such programs take job opportunities away from U.S. citizens while driving down wages and lowering standards for working conditions. And with a lingering weak economy, they added, their argument is as legitimate as ever.
But those who favor more lenient immigration policies — and many business groups — argue that there are jobs, especially physically demanding ones such as agricultural work, that U.S. workers do not want and will not take on.
They want the current agricultural temporary worker program in the United States — the H2-A visa — to expand and become less bureaucratic. They said addressing the flaws in the U.S. program will encourage more employers to choose legal channels for bringing in foreign workers — a move, they argue, that will help cut down on illegal immigration.
Now, prospective users of the U.S. visa program have to jump through multiple hoops to prove to the U.S. government that they tried to recruit U.S. workers.
“We desperately need to see the program revamped and changed,” said John Young, consultant to the New England Apple Council. “If it isn’t, a lot of the farmers that are marginal will go out of business.”
When a program works smoothly, said Young, everyone benefits.
“Workers are able to travel safely, not having to pay smugglers, or to line the pockets of criminal elements to get where they’re going,” Young said.
Guest workers in Canada “get health insurance, high wages and they do return [to their homelands],” said Philip Martin, chairman of the Comparative Immigration and Integration Program at University of California at Davis.
“But the main advantage is that [Canada] organizes everything for farmers — Canada farmers seem willing to pay to have professionals handle the recruitment of Mexican workers.”
What is questionable is whether U.S. employers — who have a large pool of willing workers ready to work — would pay to have others handle the process for them.
Martin, echoing growers in the United States, wonders whether the Canada-Mexico guest worker program — could work in a country that requires many more laborers. U.S. farms employ roughly 2 million people annually — as many as 80 percent of them are believed to be undocumented.
“And would guest workers go home if they are in U.S. areas with lots of Mexican residents?” he pondered.
Some employers say the answer is yes.
“A lot of people don’t realize that many people would rather stay in their country,” said J. Allen Carnes, president of Winter Garden Produce in Texas and an advocate for issues concerning growers.
At a conference on farm workers about a year ago that touched on the Canada program, Regelbrugge said he was struck by how Canadian government officials viewed their role in the program.
In Canada the government views its role as “administering the program,” he said. “In the United States, we have several agencies [heavily] involved in our program.”
The U.S. Department of Labor, the main agency in charge of screening U.S. guest workers, did not return messages from Fox News Latino seeking comment.
“We need for a guest worker program to be market-based,” Carnes said. “The market will dictate if we need guest workers and how many we use."
“If there is an excess of workers here, who want to work, we’d rather use them, even if you have to pay more,” Carnes said. “When there’s no local worker, you need that guest worker, who is ready and willing to do the work.”
Employers and labor unions say any changes to the guest worker program should not tie an employee to one employer — in other words, it needs to be more flexible.
“They’re dependent upon one employer in a country where they don’t have mobility,” said Carnes. “They can work in one place, and that’s the only place you can work, and you have to keep that employer happy or you fall out of status.”