January 25, 2006
Large-Scale Temporary Worker Programs
WASHINGTON — Three studies released by the Migration Policy Institute today show that the U.S. economy is already using large-scale temporary worker programs to work around the inflexibility and delays of the permanent immigration system. In fact, the reports' authors find, temporary labor admissions far outweigh permanent labor admissions and, increasingly, "temporary" workers are becoming permanent U.S. residents. The heated debate on new temporary worker programs should take account of these realities.
"In fiscal year 2004, the volume of admissions to the United States for temporary workers, trainees and their dependants reached nearly 1.5 million, far outweighing the 155,330 new immigrants who were admitted under the permanent employment-based categories that same year," writes Deborah Meyers, MPI senior policy analyst and author of Temporary Worker Programs: A Patchwork Policy Response. (While temporary admissions numbers indicate entries rather than people — and some individuals may enter more than once — they reflect a dramatic increase from past decades of the number of people involved.) Within these employment-based visa categories, temporary workers have dramatic variations of stay that range from three months to ten years, and admissions in different categories range from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands, writes Ms. Meyers. "Even in categories with specified caps, it is not uncommon for caps to be raised or for defined groups of applicants to be exempted."
Susan Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University and author of US Employment-Based Admissions: Permanent and Temporary, points out that the existing temporary worker programs have clear pros and cons. Employers have a chance to test employees for their contributions to the economy and society as well as the flexibility to bring in workers for short-term projects. On the other hand, temporary workers are vulnerable to exploitation because they are often dependent on specific employers or jobs for their legal status. Additionally, because rules for recruitment are so cumbersome, and sanctions against employers who hire unauthorized workers so rarely applied, many employers opt out of using the temporary worker system altogether.
A third study, by MPI Policy Analyst Jeanne Batalova, demonstrates that the distinction between temporary and permanent migration, clearly demarcated in past decades, has become increasingly blurred. In The Growing Connection Between Temporary and Permanent Systems, she concludes that a new immigrant admissions system has emerged that is not temporary or permanent, but rather a transitional system that allows visa holders to prove their worth to employers and the broader economy.
The studies were prepared for the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America's Future, a bipartisan panel of prominent leaders from key sectors concerned with immigration convened by MPI to generate sound information and workable policy ideas.
All three authors find that, with large numbers of people coming through the temporary system, many are transitioning to permanent status. "In FY 2004, more than 60 percent of new lawful permanent residents (LPRs) adjusted their status (rather than being new arrivals), and at least 10 percent of LPRs are former temporary workers," writes Ms. Meyers. "Furthermore, nearly half of all temporary worker admissions are in categories that explicitly allow adjustment." This sends mixed messages to workers and employers about the intentions of temporary worker programs.
Ms. Meyers identifies a number of policy questions whose answers should guide reform efforts:
The Independent Task Force on Immigration and America's Future is co-chaired by former Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI) and former Congressman Lee Hamilton (D-IN). MPI is partnering with Manhattan Institute and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in sponsoring this Task Force.
1400 16th St NW, Ste 300 | Washington, DC 20036 | ph. 202-266-1940 | fax. 202-266-1900