A Guest Worker Program that Works?

KJZZ’s Tony Ganzer has been investigating the Guest Worker program instituted by Germany in the 1960s and 70s,  in hopes of finding something the US could use in its own efforts to reform immigration policy.  Germany is still coping with the effects of its program, and as Ganzer reports, some experts say the US may not have better luck if it rolls out its own guest worker program.

When looking to compare the US and German immigrant populations one study is at front of the line. In 1996 Thomas Faist, a professor of Transnational Relations and the Sociology of Development in Bielefeld Germany directly compared the children of Turkish immigrants in Germany, with the children of Mexican immigrants in the US. Faist wanted to look at the similarities and struggles of each immigrant population, especially in terms of labor.

“The risks involved are different,” he says. “The mode of exclusion in Germany has been unemployment.  The mode of exclusion in the US, even for immigrant youths, was not unemployment, but low wages.”

Faist looked at each country’s education and work placement systems to see if one group of immigrants was better off than the other. Germany has apprenticeship programs, where the US has community colleges or vocational schools.

In Germany Faist says it’s very hard for an immigrant group to be fully accepted into society, and some could argue similar struggles exist for immigrants in the US.

“I also looked at ‘Do Mexicans, do Turks form a so-called underclass?’ That was not the case,” he says. “The young people I interviewed, most of them, the overwhelming majority still had hope for the future.  They were not in despair.”

Faist’s study looked at legal immigrants in both countries—many of the Turkish Germans having been part of the country’s guest worker program.

But in looking at legal immigrants, Faist also realized a side effect of guest worker programs. He says workers lay down roots, and often don’t want to leave their new home, and that is something the US would have to consider in any new immigration policy.

“There’s nothing more permanent than temporary labor.  If in the US the thinking is that with guest worker programs you can avoid illegal employment..well that’s nonsense,” he says.

Thomas Faist

Dawn McLaren is a Washington, D.C.-based research economist specializing in immigration. She says the US, Germany, and any country trying to have a successful guest worker program would be better off embracing a foreign labor force, which would encourage workers to become active in communities, and feel invested in an area. Seasonal or limited work arrangements don’t encourage workers to become members of their temporary communities.

“People who know a little bit on where to go, and where to find the jobs—there’s still a connection here, and they’ll come back but illegally,” she says. “They’ll have more of an incentive to take as much as they can.”

McLaren says a person not as invested in a country may not take as much care in preserving that country. One way for a government to better manage a foreign work force may rest in better communication.

“One should be prepared that you bring in people, they do the work, and they tend to stay against the law and order,” says Barbara John, the commissioner for immigration and integration for the Berlin Senate from 1981 to 2003.

John thinks governments need to give workers a better idea of the working conditions workers will be exposed to. She says a guest worker program can only function if the work is truly temporary.

“You can see it every day, you are picking tomatoes and so on.  And from the beginning you said three months and then it is over,” she says. “But if you make it for a longer time, for one year or two years I think it proved that it cannot work.”

John says Germany’s experience with a guest worker program may not help the US make smarter policy. She thinks the answer to the foreign labor question rests in specialized visas, as the US has now.

But even with further regulation, John says there’s no fool-proof plan.

“It’s always difficult. There’s no immigration policy without any risk of course.  You always have some risk,” she says.

Many immigration experts agree that instituting a guest worker program would be difficult. Those experts, including representatives from the US Government, say using foreign labor can only work if laborers know it’s okay to return home, and that work will be available when they come back.

“If you want to legitimize foreign labor, migrant labor a guest worker program would not be a bad thing,” says professor Thomas Faist. “However look at the German situation in the 1960s and early 70s.  12 million came in this period, and 4 million stayed.  Is that success?  Is that failure?  The majority left.”

As the immigration debate in the US remains stalled, German lawmakers are beginning to work to improve the country’s system for attracting skilled foreign labor. But those lawmakers are also still working to integrate former guest workers into society, and that work has no signs of completion in the near future.

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