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If America Must Be Shut Down, So Must Its Guest Worker Programs

By Dale L. Wilcox

America-Firsters were both perplexed and furious for most of last week as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appeared to be going ahead with its early March announcement to expand the H-2B unskilled guest-worker program to over 100,000 slots a year. With unemployment-benefit applications for March coming in at over 10 million, the last time the job market looked this bad—the Great Depression of the 1930s—immigration authorities sought to help, not hinder, the American worker by creating the nation’s first-ever illegal-alien-removal program. 


Late last week, however, due in part to activist pressures, DHS’s interim secretary, Chad Wolf, announced the increase would be paused “due to present economic circumstances.” It was a minor bit of respite for working Americans who were already struggling going into this crippling downturn. 


The H-2B guest-worker visa was created in 1986 as part of a congressional law that provided amnesty to over 3 million illegal aliens. Because that law also included a promise to finally put an end to illegal-alien hiring, businesses complaining of impending “worker shortages” were able to secure the right to import temporary foreign workers for a slew of low-skilled industries, including cattle farming, landscaping and hospitality. Agribusiness got its separate, far larger “H-2A” program for farmworkers. Nearly 35 years on, however, the problem of illegal labor is bigger than ever, and H-2B-using businesses still complain about worker shortages. 


The H-2B is one area where anti-borders groups and pro-American worker groups like mine actually come together on. Organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Economic Policy Institute, and the AFL-CIO all rightly criticize the program for being a modified version of colonial-era bonded servitude, due to workers’ visas being tied to their employers, their inability to unionize, and their wages and benefits being well below normal market expectations. 


It is certainly not outlandish to call programs like the H-2B, the H-2A, and its Big Tech cousin, the H-1B, throwbacks to the time when European peasants came here as indentured laborers. America has devolved back to its pre-independence days of immigrant-serf labor before.


According to venerable U.S. historians Charles and Mary Beard, in their 1930 book The Rise of American Civilization, the Immigration Act of 1864 was “an extraordinary law which gave federal authorization to the importation of working people under terms of contract analogous to the indentured servitude of colonial times.”  


Key to their assessment was a section of the law in which emigrants first had to pledge up to a year of their wages to pay for their transportation, in effect, bonding them to their employer. Due to the public’s outrage (even Russia had abolished its serf system by this point), it was repealed four years later. However, the practice still went on for many decades, say the Beards, with “companies [being] organized to supply employers with European labor in any quantity, anywhere, at any time.” 


When it was initially announced as part of the Republican Party’s platform four years earlier (when Lincoln won the party ticket), the Beards described members both in- and outside the party as being in total shock. Pushing a policy that took the country back to the days of British colonial-era serfdom was only made possible, say the Beards, by a D.C. institution that was just then coming into its own: corporate lobbying. 


As they describe in their book, in this period there “evolved a reasoned scheme of political action” through which “the capitalists of the Northeast demanded from Congress a liberal immigration policy to assure an abundance of cheap labor.” This was part of “a heroic program which its sponsors could only realize by securing the possession of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.” 


Particularly big sponsors of the Act were Northern mill owners who feared that free farmland out West would lure away local workers. “As a counter stroke, the danger of higher wages… [was] partially averted by the [Act]”, the Beards write. It was all part of the newfound “positive advantages… won by capitalists in the halls of Congress.” 


Created alongside the immigration lobby was another D.C. institution we still live with today: the cheap-labor, public-affairs industry. This wasn’t a coincidence. In order to mute the public outrage over the new law, the Beards describe how big business had to supplement its economic arguments with a moralizing narrative to be publicized by “orators”: 


And orators, applauded by these mighty friends, were fond of portraying America as the asylum for the oppressed of the world suffering from wars, revolts, pogroms, and persecutions of every kind. Seldom has economic gain and loft idealism coincided with such mechanical precision. 


Economic threats about “shortages” coupled with moral intimidation is, of course, a fixture of today’s immigration policy discourse. Even critics of guest-worker programs, like those mentioned above, frequently employ scare terms like ‘hateful’, ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’ to intimidate critics of mass amnesty and mass immigration.  As the Beards recount, later that century, the small immigration victories achieved by organized labor were particularly "hard-fought battles,” “for by this time the doctrine of ‘the asylum for the oppressed of every land’ had become intrenched in popular psychology.” ‘Intrenched’ it still is, and hard-fought battles must keep being waged if American workers are to gain the respect and dignity they deserve. 


In 1925 Calvin Coolidge famously said that “the business of America is business.” That is still true today, but what is best for business must be balanced with what is best for American citizens. When our nation is back to full employment, we can have a national debate about the wisdom of bringing in large numbers of foreign workers. Until then, this crisis demands the prioritization of the millions uprooted from their livelihoods and their health.


Dale L. Wilcox is executive director and general counsel at the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a public interest law firm working to defend the rights and interests of the American people from the negative effects of illegal migration.


Also published at: Dale L. Wilcox, If America Must Be Shut Down, So Must Its Guest Worker Programs, American Thinker, April 11, 2020.

IRLI is a supporting organization of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

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