Politicians who argue for restricting immigration cast newcomers as an invasion of foreign settlers. Their rhetoric misses a simple fact. Many of the people who cross the border to work in U.S. farms and factories aren’t looking for a new home. Many just want to work.
Most new immigrants are deeply attached to their families, their communities and their nations. They need more income, yes, and with the wage differential, even low-paying jobs in the U.S. are an attractive option. But given the choice, a significant number would be “circular” migrants, traveling north to work for part of each year and returning home regularly to tend to their businesses and families. As Princeton-based sociologist Douglas Massey and others have argued, in the context of the U.S. and Mexico, the regular flow of workers back and forth across the border to meet specific labor needs has economic and personal human logic.
Circularity can be a good thing, when it is freely chosen and takes place under terms that are fair. It can be good for migrants, who have access to another labor market in which to earn much-needed capital, while preserving the ability to return regularly to family and community. It can be good for the countries they come from, which rely on the remittances their citizens send back home to support economic development and keep struggling economies afloat, to the tune of $300 billion a year worldwide. And it can be good for U.S. employers, who gain access to workers willing to fill in seasonal, temporary or unexpected gaps in the workforce—something for which employer associations have long lobbied. Circularity is a complex phenomenon and not all of its effects are win-win. But it is receiving increasing attention as a way to understand and resolve many of the problems stemming from global migration.
Unfortunately, despite the logic of labor circularity, it only exists in limited form in the United States. The reason lies in our broken immigration system. Many new labor migrants are undocumented and cannot return home for fear they could never come back to their jobs. A small number come in through our guestworker program that ties visas to a particular employer. Although it offers a limited vehicle for circularity, guest work has become a breeding ground for worker exploitation.
The time has come to create a labor migration system that reflects the globalized reality of the twenty-first century. We live in an era where capital crosses borders with ease. We must figure out a way for workers to do the same, on terms that protect migrants’ rights as well as those of native workers. I offer an approach that I call Transnational Labor Citizenship (TLC). It would open up our labor migration system, giving employers access to workers while ensuring decent work for newcomers and natives alike…