Temporary Worker Programs: A Patchwork Policy Response
This report explores the complex issues surrounding temporary worker programs by looking at the ways in which the United States has responded to domestic labor shortages from the 1940s through the present. It examines the intent and structure of various temporary worker programs—including the U.S.-Mexico Bracero program from 1942 to 1964, the British West Indies program from 1943 to 1947, and modern-day nonimmigrant employment-based visa categories—and raises salient policy questions that result from the analysis.
The report’s analysis of both historical and existing temporary worker programs highlights dramatic variations between programs with regard to the duration of temporary workers’ stay, numerical allowances for admission, and eligibility for permanent admission. The author argues that the current system—a complex patchwork crafted in response to specific needs and exceptions—sends mixed messages to workers and employers about the intentions of temporary work programs. The significant number of temporary workers who adjust to permanent resident status may also indicate that the temporary worker system is not truly temporary; rather, it may be a transition to permanent immigration for many workers, and a way for employers to adapt to the failures of the permanent immigration system and gain immediate access to these workers.
The author stresses the importance of properly understanding this relationship between permanent and temporary admissions, and urges policymakers to consider whether the goals of the temporary worker program writ large need to be revisited and clarified. Additional recommendations include determining data needs for further analysis, addressing administrative challenges to effective implementation, and using lessons from past experiences to better inform policy decisions.