Guest worker program could help solve immigration crisis


By Eric Boehm |

A soccer player given a red card must leave the game immediately without a chance to return.

But for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States who are working hard and earning an honest living, a red card could be a far more welcome sight, allowing them to remain in the country — temporarily — without fear of arrest and deportation.

MAKE THEM LEGAL: By legalizing more guest workers with clean criminal histories, the Border Patrol could focus on those who are still trying to enter the national illegally for illicit reasons. And good, honest workers would not have to risk life and limb to make a living.

That’s the idea behind an effort to revamp America’s broken guest worker program, which would grant literal red cards — to differentiate from the “green card” given to immigrants with permanent residency status — to immigrants who enter the country legally and want to stay for a limited period while working to pay their own way.

“It’s not citizenship or a ‘path to citizenship.’ But you should be able to come into the country if you want to work and fill jobs,” said Helen Krieble, a businesswoman and immigration activist who runs the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation, a nonprofit working to improve America’s immigration laws.

To get a “red card,” migrant workers would have to pass a criminal background check and have an employer waiting for them when they crossed the border. Providing a channel for legal, short-term immigration for those who want to take seasonal jobs — mostly on American farms – would, Krieble believes, stem the flow of illegal immigrants.

She says the only people who would still try to cross the border illegally would be those with criminal histories or other illegal goals — drug smuggling or human trafficking, for example. The move would allow the U.S. Border Patrol to focus on stopping the real threats to public safety.

Workers with a red card would be allowed to remain in the country for two years — as long as they are employed the whole time — before reapplying to the system and passing another background check.

The so-called Red Card Solution is a far cry from how the nation’s guest worker permit program operates. The government grants 66,000 visas per year for unskilled nonagricultural workers and another 65,000 for highly skilled workers.

The government issues about 150,000 visas annually for temporary farm workers — a number that doesn’t even come close to the estimated 2 million seasonal workers on U.S. farms and ranches.

Thousands of Americans partake in guest worker programs in other countries each year — mostly in Europe but increasingly in China and other Asian nations, according to the U.S. Department of State.

ONE IDEA: Congress seems unwilling to act on immigration issues, but Helen Krieble says some parts of an overall solution would be easy – starting with a better guest worker program to give many of those who are already here illegally a way to be legal, at least for the short term.

But the United States’ current policy for guest workers makes it almost impossible for anyone to do the same here, the brief says.

Those looking to come to the United States for a temporary job face a stark choice: spend the time and effort to go through legal channels to become a permanent resident and seek citizenship, or enter the country illegally and work under the table.

Since many would-be temporary workers have no intention or desire to stay in the country permanently and become American citizens, they take the second option. But that means dangerous border crossings, often facilitated by unsavory smugglers and human traffickers, and the constant threat of capture by authorities.

As for the current crisis at the border, in which thousands of children are overwhelming federal authorities’ ability to take care of them, Krieble says the issue is a symptom of a completely broken immigration system that lumps good workers in with the bad and forces families to separate to survive. She hopes the red card plan can be part of an overall solution.

But getting Congress to agree on a major overhaul of any part of America’s broken immigration system is no easy task.

The Vernon K. Krieble Foundation, which Krieble runs, has spent the past two years meeting with members of Congress and their staffs, so far with little to show for it in terms of legislation.

That lawmakers are squeamish is understandable.

Newt Gingrich publicly endorsed the “red card” immigration plan during his run for president in 2011, when he was at the top of the Republican primary battle — two months later he was an also-ran.

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., was widely seen as the House GOP’s “point man” on immigration issues before he was ousted by an unknown primary challenger earlier this year. That man, David Brat, used Cantor’s views on immigration reform as an important part of his campaign strategy, though most analysts seem to agree a variety of reasons contributed to Cantor’s stunning loss.

But in a place where the top priority is keeping your own job, even the suggestion that going out on a limb for immigration reform could hurt a politician’s career might be enough to keep most from trying.

Krieble and others working for her organization gave the names of several congressmen who seemed receptive to the “red card” proposal. None of them, nor their staffs, were willing to speak with us on the record about it.

Krieble says it’s foolish for Republicans to keep sitting on their hands with this issue.


WILL CONGRESS ACT? Immigration reform is going nowhere fast in Congress, but a fix to the guest worker program could potentially break the stalemate.

“As long as (Republicans) do nothing, they are letting President Obama win,” she said. “If they were to just move with a bill, they would be able to stop Obama from going around and saying Republicans don’t have any ideas.”

She maintains the proposal isn’t amnesty — a dirty word in many conservative circles these days — because it improves on a system that is already giving illegal immigrants de facto amnesty.

Still, conservative, anti-immigration groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform have warned an unrestricted guest worker program would undercut American jobs and workers’ pay. They worry workers will simply over stay their visas and continue to illegally work in the United States, instead of re-applying for a new card.

On the left, some pro-immigration groups, such as the Immigration Policy Center, have voiced concern the red card program would create a new system of “indentured servitude,” because workers would be unable to leave the job assigned to them without violating the terms of their guest worker permits.

Krieble admits that the guest worker program doesn’t solve all of America’s immigration problems but sees it as a key starting point.

Her proposal would give guest workers the right to have their children taught in American schools and would let them access emergency medical care. Because they would now be legal workers they would pay taxes to support those costs.

Workers with a red card would not have access to most social programs — Social Security, unemployment, welfare and the like.

“I look at it this way: If you have guests over at your house, do you immediately add them to your health insurance policy? No, of course not. But you’ll probably let them have some food and a place to sleep,” she said.