(May 2005) The dramatic increase in the number of undocumented immigrants to the United States over the last four years highlights the ongoing policy debate about how these immigrants should best be incorporated into the U.S. labor force.

Three competing proposals now before the U.S. Congress all aim to change the status of undocumented workers, either to guest workers or to applicants for legal status. But without sustained economic growth in these immigrants’ sending countries—particularly Mexico—these proposed solutions could be laying the groundwork for new waves of migration in the future.

Guest Workers, Immigrants, or Something in Between?

According to a new report from the Pew Hispanic Center, there were an estimated 10.3 million unauthorized foreigners in the United States in March 2004, a 23 percent increase from the 8.4 million who were in the country in 2000. (Undocumented immigrants make up almost 30 percent of the nearly 36 million foreign-born U.S. residents.) And despite increased attention and funding to border security, as many as 800,000 people per year enter this country illegally under current immigration policy.

Most analysts agree that it is not optimal for the United States to have unauthorized workers making up approximately 5 percent of its 150-million-strong labor force, as they do today. The Pew report says that 57 percent of unauthorized workers are from Mexico, and a Migration Policy Institute analysis of census data shows that foreign-born residents from Mexico have a higher unemployment rate than do the overall foreign-born, the U.S.-born, and the total population. Unauthorized workers are also generally barred from collecting unemployment insurance and other work-related benefits, and they cannot usually collect wages for time they did not work because they were unlawfully fired in retaliation for union activities.

But finding sustainable solutions to unauthorized migration for employment has been elusive. The major issue being debated in Congress is whether unauthorized foreigners with U.S. jobs should be turned into guest workers who are expected to leave eventually, treated as immigrants expected to stay and integrate, or regarded as something in between those two classifications.

The Bush Administration’s Proposal

In January 2004, President Bush unveiled his Fair and Secure Immigration Reform proposal, intended to turn currently employed unauthorized workers into guest workers. Under this plan, unauthorized workers would obtain affidavits from their employers certifying that they had jobs in the United States. After presenting the affidavits and paying a fee of $1,000 or $2,000, these workers could then obtain a three-year work visa that would be renewable once, giving them up to six more years both to work in the United States and to travel legally in and out of the country.

These guest workers would have to remain employed in the United States or risk losing their guest-worker status. And they would be presented with a new incentive to return to their origin countries at the end of six years: credit in their home countries’ social-security systems for their legal work in the United States.

In essence, the Bush plan would turn currently unauthorized workers into legal guest workers and open up the U.S. labor market to an unlimited number of guest workers by making it easier for U.S. employers to hire them. But the plan would theoretically not increase legal immigration. In his 2002 State of the Union speech, President Bush said: “It is time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take [but] that rejects amnesty.”

The Democratic Proposal

The major Democratic Party proposal in Congress—the Safe, Orderly, Legal Visas and Enforcement Act (SOLVE)—would allow unauthorized foreigners who satisfy residence, work, and other criteria to become immigrants. Under SOLVE, unauthorized foreigners who wish to legalize that status must have been in the United States at least five years, have worked in the United States at least two years, and have passed English tests and security checks.

Unauthorized foreigners who did not satisfy these criteria could nevertheless receive temporary legal status and stay and work in the United States legally until they qualified for immigrant status. The proposal would cap annual admissions of unskilled guest workers at 350,000 a year, although additional guest-worker programs would be permissible.

In essence, the Democrats’ proposal grants legal status to most unauthorized foreigners in the United States and gives these people a clear path to legal immigrant status. The effect of the Democrats’ plan would be to increase legal immigration while capping the admission of unskilled guest workers.

AgJOBS for Temporary Farm Workers

The third current approach to deal with illegal migration—the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJOBS) bill—applies only to agriculture. Debated in the Senate in April 2005, the AgJOBS bill would allow unauthorized foreigners who had done at least 100 days of farm work in a previous one-year period to apply for a temporary legal status.

This temporary legal status would permit AgJOBS workers to remain in the United States for six years and protect their family members in the United States from deportation. If AgJOBS workers performed sufficient qualifying farm work during this six-year period (at least 360 days, including at least 75 days annually for the first three years), they and their family members could become legal immigrants.

AgJOBS would give temporary legal status to unauthorized farm workers now in the United States and put them and their families on a path to immigrant status. About 80 percent of the approximately 2.5 million individuals who work on U.S. farms for wages each year were born abroad. And the majority of those born abroad are unauthorized, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey.

AgJOBS would increase the dependence of U.S. agriculture on foreign-born workers by making it easier for farmers to hire legal guest workers. Farmers support AgJOBS because it eliminates the requirement that they must provide free housing to guest workers and freezes the wages that legal guest workers must be paid.

Will New Solutions Generate New Problems?

Today’s situation is reminiscent of 1986, when the number of unauthorized foreigners in the United States was estimated to be 3.5 million to 5 million—between one-third and one-half of today’s total. That year, Congress passed and President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which had two major provisions: employer sanctions to close the labor market door to unauthorized foreigners, under the theory they would not come illegally if they could not find jobs; and legalization for those workers who had developed an “equity stake” in the United States—meaning that they had lived in the United States continuously since 1982 or had worked at least 90 days on a U.S. farm during the previous year. Some 2.7 million foreigners—85 percent of them Mexican—were legalized under the act.

Later, the closer economic integration between the two countries symbolized by NAFTA in 1994 was expected to speed up economic and job growth in Mexico, thereby reducing unauthorized Mexico-U.S. migration. Instead, there has been a migration “hump” (or increase) over the past decade, as NAFTA helped to speed up structural changes in both economies that displaced workers, especially in agriculture. Many Mexican farmers were linked to the United States by earlier migrations, and some found it easier to start anew in the United States than to find jobs in a Mexican economy that experienced roller coaster economic growth.

The three programs currently on the table to legalize unauthorized foreigners all aim to “freeze” the status quo in place. As with IRCA, they are intended to bring the unauthorized out of the shadows and wipe the illegal-migration slate clean. However, if Mexico does not enjoy sustained economic growth, the result could be the creation of more migration networks that link Mexican and U.S. labor markets and more unauthorized migration.

Philip Martin is professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of California, Davis.


Elizabeth Greico and Brian Ray, “Mexican Immigrants in the U.S. Labor Force,” Migration Information Source (March 1, 2004), accessed online at www.migrationinformation.org on May 6, 2005.

Philip Martin, “AgJOBS: New Solution or New Problem?” UC-Davis Law Review 38 (2005): 973-91.

Jeffrey S. Passel, “Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population” (Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, 2005), accessed online at http://pewhispanic.org/reports on May 9, 2005.

U.S. Department of Labor, “The National Agricultural Workers Survey,” accessed online at www.dol.gov on May 9, 2005.