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← How guest worker visas could transform the US immigration system

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Showing Revision 9 created 01/14/2020 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. By October 2018,
  2. Juan Carlos Rivera could no longer afford
  3. to live in his home in Copan, Honduras.
  4. As the "Dallas Morning News" reported,
  5. a gang was taking 10 percent
    of his earnings from his barber shop.
  6. His wife was assaulted
    going to her pre-K teaching job.
  7. And they were concerned
    about the safety of their young daughter.
  8. What could they do?
  9. Run away?
  10. Seek asylum in another country?
  11. They didn't want to do that.
  12. They just wanted to live
    in their country safely.
  13. But their options were limited.

  14. So that month,
  15. Juan Carlos moved his family
    to a safer location
  16. while he joined a group of migrants
    on the long and perilous journey
  17. from Central America
  18. to a job a family member said
    was open for him in the United States.
  19. By now we're all familiar
    with what awaited them

  20. at the US-Mexico border.
  21. The harsher and harsher penalties
    doled out to those crossing there.
  22. The criminal prosecutions
    for crossing illegally.
  23. The inhumane detention.
  24. And most terribly,
    separation of families.
  25. I'm here to tell you
    that not only is this treatment wrong,

  26. it's unnecessary.
  27. This belief that the only way
    to maintain order
  28. is with inhumane means
  29. is inaccurate.
  30. And in fact, the opposite is true.
  31. Only a humane system
    will create order at the border.
  32. When safe, orderly, legal travel
    to the United States is available,
  33. very few people choose
    travel that is unsafe,
  34. disorderly or illegal.
  35. Now, I appreciate the idea
  36. that legal immigration
    could just resolve the border crisis
  37. might sound a bit fanciful.
  38. But here is the good news:
  39. We have done this before.
  40. I've been working on immigration for years

  41. at the Cato Institute
  42. and other think tanks in Washington DC
  43. and as the senior policy adviser
    for a republican member of Congress,
  44. negotiating bipartisan immigration reform.
  45. And I've seen firsthand
  46. how America has implemented
    a system of humane order at the border
  47. for Mexico.
  48. It's called a guest worker program.
  49. And here's the even better news.
  50. We can replicate this success
    for Central America.
  51. Of course, some people

  52. will still need to seek
    asylum at the border.
  53. But to understand how successful
  54. this could be for immigrants
    like Juan Carlos,
  55. understand that until recently,
  56. nearly every immigrant arrested
    by Border Patrol was Mexican.
  57. In 1986,

  58. each Border Patrol agent
    arrested 510 Mexicans.
  59. Well over one per day.
  60. By 2019, this number was just eight.
  61. That's one every 43 days.
  62. It is a 98 percent reduction.
  63. So where have all the Mexicans gone?
  64. The most significant change

  65. is that the US began issuing
  66. hundreds of thousands
    of guest worker visas to Mexicans,
  67. so that they can come legally.
  68. José Vásquez Cabrera was among
    the first Mexican guest workers
  69. to take advantage of this visa expansion.
  70. He told "The New York Times"
    that before his visa
  71. he'd made terrifying
    illegal border crossings,
  72. braving near deadly heat
    and the treachery of the landscape.
  73. One time, a snake killed
    a member of his group.
  74. Thousands of other Mexicans
    also didn't make it,
  75. dying of dehydration in the deserts
    or drowning in the Rio Grande.
  76. Millions more were
    chased down and arrested.
  77. Guest worker visas have nearly ended
    this inhumane chaos.
  78. As Vásquez Cabrera put it,
  79. "I no longer have to risk my life
  80. to support my family.
  81. And when I'm here,
    I don't have to live in hiding."
  82. Guest worker visas actually reduced
    the number of illegal crossings

  83. more than the number of visas issued.
  84. Jose Bacilio, another
    Mexican guest worker, explained why
  85. to the "Washington Post" in April.
  86. He said, even though
    he hadn't received a visa this year,
  87. he wouldn't risk all of his future chances
  88. by crossing illegally.
  89. This likely helps explain why
  90. from 1996 to 2019
  91. for every guest worker
    admitted legally from Mexico,
  92. there was a decline in two arrests
    of Mexicans crossing illegally.
  93. Now, it's true,

  94. Mexican guest workers
    do some really tough jobs.
  95. Picking fruit, cleaning crabs,
  96. landscaping in a 100-degree heat.
  97. And some critics maintain
    that guest worker visas
  98. are not actually humane
  99. and that the workers
    are just abused slaves.
  100. But Vásquez Cabrera thought
    a guest worker visa was liberating.
  101. Not enslavement.
  102. And he, like nearly
    all other guest workers,
  103. chose the legal path
    over the illegal one, repeatedly.
  104. The expansion of guest worker
    visas to Mexicans
  105. has been among the most
    significant humane changes
  106. in US immigration policy ever.
  107. And that humane change
  108. imposed order on chaos.
  109. So where does this leave
    Central Americans,

  110. like Juan Carlos?
  111. Well, Central Americans received
  112. just three percent of the guest worker
    visas issued in 2019,
  113. even as their share of border arrests
    has risen to 74 percent.
  114. The US issued just one guest worker visa
    to a Central American
  115. for every 78 who crossed
    the border illegally in 2019.
  116. So if they can't get their papers at home,
  117. many take their chances,
  118. coming up through Mexico
    to claim asylum at the border
  119. or cross illegally,
  120. even if, like Juan Carlos,
    they prefer to come to work.
  121. The US can do better.

  122. It needs to create new guest worker visas
  123. specifically for Central Americans.
  124. This would create an incentive
    for US businesses
  125. to seek out and hire Central Americans,
  126. paying for their flights
    to the United States,
  127. and diverting them from the illegal,
    dangerous trek north.
  128. Central Americans could build
    flourishing lives at home,
  129. without the need to seek
    asylum at the border
  130. or cross illegally,
  131. freeing up an overwhelmed system.
  132. Some people might say

  133. that letting the workers go back and forth
  134. will never work in Central America
  135. where violence is so high.
  136. But again, it worked in Mexico,
  137. even as Mexico's murder rate
    more than tripled over the last decade,
  138. to a level higher
    than much of Central America.
  139. And it would work for Juan Carlos,
  140. who said, despite the threats
  141. he only wants to live
    in the United States temporarily,
  142. to make enough money
  143. to sustain his family in their new home.
  144. He even suggested
    that a guest worker program
  145. would be one of the best things
    to help Hondurans like him.
  146. Cintia, a 29-year-old
    single mother of three from Honduras,

  147. seems to agree.
  148. She told the "Wall Street Journal"
    that she came for a job
  149. to support her kids and her mom.
  150. Surveys of Central Americans
    traveling through Mexico,
  151. by the College of the Northern
    Border in Mexico,
  152. confirm that Juan and Cintia are the norm.
  153. Most, not all, but most do come for jobs,
  154. even if, like the Riveras,
  155. they may also face
    some real threats at home.
  156. How much would a low-wage job help

  157. a Honduran, like Juan or Cintia?
  158. Hondurans like them make as much
  159. in one month in the United States
  160. as they do in an entire year
    working in Honduras.
  161. A few years' work in the United States
  162. can propel a Central American
    into its upper middle class
  163. where safety is easier to come by.
  164. What Central Americans lack
    is not the desire to work.

  165. Not the desire to contribute
    to the US economy,
  166. to contribute to the lives of Americans.
  167. What Central Americans lack
    is a legal alternative to asylum.
  168. To be able to do so legally.
  169. Of course, a new guest worker program

  170. will not resolve 100 percent
    of this complex phenomenon.
  171. Many asylum seekers
    will still need to seek safety
  172. at the US border.
  173. But with the flows reduced,
  174. we can more easily work out ways
    to deal with them humanely.
  175. But ultimately,
  176. no single policy has proven to do more
  177. to create an immigration system
    that is both humane
  178. and orderly
  179. than to let the workers come legally.
  180. Thank you.

  181. (Applause)