The New El Norte: Canada

I lived in Mexico on and off from 1999 through 2005.  Working with immigrants traveling back and forth to Pennsylvania, we spend a lot of time talking about the broken U.S. immigration system and the difficulties workers faced when crossing into the U.S.

Back then I asked a question that seemed far-fetched: why not go to work in Canada?  Their immigration laws were certainly more flexible.

The responses were consistently the same: “it’s too cold” or “I don’t know anyone in Canada.”  I already knew that most immigrants followed their networks north–one person would find and setting in a new area, then travel back to Mexico and share the cultural knowledge with family, friends and neighbors who in turn would start to join the “pioneer” migrant in the new locale.  Migrant patterns are enduring, but they are not unchanging.  This article from the Washington Post highlights how a model guest worker program in Canada is making a new El Norte.

For years I have argued that the U.S. needs a revised guest worker program. Many of my colleagues scoff at the idea, thinking that our H2-A visa program, which links agricultural workers to their employer for housing and health care.  It’s a program that might work well for farmer, but it makes the immigrant worker beholden to his or her employer.

Canada’s worker visa has its drawbacks, but the WAPO article point out that it is designed to offer safe, stable employment and worker protection and to actively encourage workers to return home at the end of the growing season.  While not necessarily ideal, it does meet the needs of the laborer, to some degree.

Only married men are eligible for the Canadian program, preferably those with young children, and their families must remain in Mexico. Another incentive to return home: a cut of the migrants’ wages is placed in a Canadian pension fund, receivable only if they return to Mexico.

Once in Canada, the workers live like monks, sleeping in trailers or barracks, under contractual agreements that forbid them from drinking alcohol and having female visitors, or even socializing with other Mexican workers from different farms.
Most of their time in Canada is limited to sleeping, eating and working long days that can stretch to 15 hours, without overtime pay.“People look to Canada as a model for their success at making temporary workers truly temporary,” said David FitzGerald, an immigration expert at the University of California at San Diego. “But the way they are prevented from staying is by socially isolating them to an extreme degree, controlling their movements and systematically preventing them from interacting with Canadian society,” he said.“From a labor rights perspective, it’s troubling, but it’s appealing to policymakers because it keeps the workers temporary,” FitzGerald said.

Still, migrants interviewed here in the high desert towns of rural Zacatecas said work in Canada is hard but fair and well-paid. Their employers treated them well, they said, and when they didn’t, the local Mexican consulate intervened.

“The consulate threatens to take away their Mexicans, and usually that’s enough,” said Armando Tenorio, who first worked in Quebec tending flowers and herbs inside a massive greenhouse.

At the same time, one wonders why governments cannot simply offer temporary visas for a fee.  If human traffickers are charging upwards of $5000 for what all know to be a perilous border crossing, it seems reasonable that there are resources available to pay a fee to do the same safely.  Once in the U.S., workers could freely seek employment where they wish, and if job were unavailable, they would likely go home.  That has been the trend during the recession, and there is ample research to support this assumption historically.

What is troubling about the current U.S. and Canadian temporary worker visas is the need to control the immigrant.  It’s clear from the Canadian example that for Mexicans participating in the program, safety, security and fairness are as important as freedom to live and work where one pleases. That is something we all need to consider as the U.S. slowly considers immigration reform.

H 2-B or not to be: Why not let the market decide?

Following on this darn good article from the Houston Examiner, I want to once again propose that the only way to determine how many low-skill laborers the U.S. needs is to develop a temporary worker visa program.  Allow immigrants to “purchase” visas so they can work in the U.S. legally.  Unlike the H 2-B, I envision a visa program where immigrants are free agents, and not tied to any particular employer.  Then, let the market decide exactly how many workers the U.S. needs. 

There is always a great deal of clamor from opponents of immigration reform, but never as much as in times of economic recession. The complaints are focused on simplistic requests to control our borders and to protect the U.S. job market from foreigners allegedly taking away jobs from U.S. workers.

Unfortunately, most people’s statements are made out of ignorance, as they are unaware of the actual depth of the problems, which include the reality of how much our economy depends on immigrant labor and the complexities of the immigration laws that currently exist.

For example, anti-immigrant proponents criticize the practice of hiring illegal aliens, contending that they should hire only lawful workers or make sure that foregn workers follow the law and get green cards. However, they are unaware of the difficulty that U.S. employers have in finding lawful U.S. workers for their manual labor and that depriving those U.S. businesses of immigrant workers, ultimately, can cause many businesses to collapse, creating a domino effect of damage on the economy.

That’s not just an opinion, but a proven fact, as was evidenced in Riverside, N.J., where a crackdown on illegal immigrants diminished the town’s population by 1/3 and left local businesses struggling to survive. (See: http://money.cnn.com/2008/04/17/smbusiness/illegal_immigration_dividing.fsb/index.htm)

Furthermore, anti-immigrant proponents are outraged by employers, who hire illegal aliens to mow lawns, build bridges, or tend to their agricultural needs. However, they falsely assume that there is a viable vehicle in the current immigration legal system for those employers to petition and obtain the lawful right to work for such employees. The truth is that there aren’t realistic workable options.

Finally, anti-immigrant proponents frequently complain that someone they know, who is an engineer, for example, “can’t get a green card, yet all of the people sneaking across the border get green cards easily.”

That statement couldn’t be more inaccurate. The process of obtaining lawful status for non-professional workers without university degrees is a very cumbersome, if not almost impossible process. Current immigration laws favor giving lawful status only to immigrants, who possess a university education.

The true irony in that practice is that it actually is harmful to the objective of protecting the U.S. job market.

By focusing on giving lawful status to only foreigners with university educations, it is essentially encouraging U.S. employers to give away the professional, higher paying positions to foreign employees. It saturates our job market with highly ambitious and well-educated foreign employees to compete with U.S. professionals.

As such, it makes more sense to expand the current immigration regulations to provide a more viable system for U.S. businesses to hire hard working immigrants to fill unskilled or non-degree requiring positions, such as in construction, landscaping, or housekeeping.

The only current means for obtaining lawful status for non-professional foreign workers is called an H-2B visa. It is a temporary visa, which allows the foreign worker to work in the United States for only 10 months out of the year. It also has to be renewed annually.

There are 4 serious deficiencies with that system:

  1. The expectation is that the H-2B worker will return to his or her country after completion of the 10 month visa.
  2. The employers have to petition for the worker each year, which costs them thousands of dollars in advertising and associated costs with no guarantee of actually getting an H-2B visa number for the prospective employee.
  3. The H-2B visa holder can only obtain the visa for a maximum of three consecutive years.
  4. Due to the fact that there are only 65K H-2B visas given out each year, the visas are almost always unavailable each year until the following fiscal year of October 1.

So, for example, if the employer’s temporary season is from February through November, he cannot file a petition prior to April 1 for an October 1 start date. After investing thousands of dollars in pursuing the H-2B for his foreign worker, he could discover that the petition he filed on April 1 for an October 1st start date was not one of the 65K selected for a visa that year.

Or, even if his H-2B petition is allotted a visa, his immigrant worker will only be issued the right to work for the two remaining months of the employer’s temporary season, October 1 through November.

Therefore, due to the logistical impediments in the current immigration system for unskilled or non-professional workers, it is almost impossible for employers to legally petition for and/or hire foreign workers, who do not possess university degrees. The H-2B system is not a workable, practical, or reasonable option for U.S. employers seeking to fill non-professional positions.

The resulting situation is that many employers are left with the inability to fill their many non-professional positions, which has put many businesses in jeopardy. Therefore, a critical solution for viable immigration reform is to increase or eliminate the annual limit of H-2B numbers and revoke the provision prohibiting H-2B holders from immigrant intent.

The allegations of the American public that these workers take away jobs from U.S. lawful workers is simply unfounded because both the H-2B nonimmigrant and the associated 3rd preference immigrant petitions already require completing a stringent test of the job market and payment of the prevailing wage, which is usually higher than what some employers actually pay U.S. workers.
Therefore, test of the job market required to obtain an H-2B visa is proof that the H-2B worker is not, in fact, taking a job away from a U.S. worker.

There are problems intrinsic in the H-2B visa system, which pose major issues to our economy and U.S. businesses. Reform, which accommodates the need for immigrant workers, is critical to prevent the failure of many U.S. businesses, which rely on skilled and unskilled immigrant workers to fill the many positions for which there are not enough U.S. lawful workers to fill. The truth of the matter is that if we were able to suddenly take every foreigner working unlawfully in the United States today out of the job market, the economy of most U.S. metropolitan cities would collapse.